Taiwan's opposition expected big winner in parliament poll

Taiwan will elect a new parliament Saturday in a crucial poll seen as a key indicator for the presidential elections two months later.

The main opposition Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), a China-friendly party that ruled 50 years until its ouster in 2000, is expected to be the biggest winner in Saturday's elections thanks to a weak administrative and economic performance of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), analysts said.

The individual wealth of many families in Taiwan has shrunk drastically in the past eight years since Chen Shui-bian of the pro- independence DPP took power from the KMT by winning the presidency in 2000.

Chen had come under intensive pressure to step down last year due to a host of corruption scandals linked to him, his family and government.

The allegations have seriously hurt the images of Chen and his government with frustrated and disappointed voters, who have decided to vote KMT or simply not vote at all, analysts said. The KMT is targeting 66 seats to secure the majority in parliament.

"The new election system also benefits the KMT, which has more traditional electoral strongholds than that of the DPP," said Wu Tung-yeh, political science professor of National Chengchi University.

Under the new system that halves the parliament seats to 113 from 225, the electoral districts are increased to 73 from 23, thereby allowing parties with the largest traditional electoral strongholds to make bigger gains.

But the smaller districts have also encouraged voter fraud as it becomes easier for a candidate to buy votes from specific groups of voters, Professor Wu said.

So far, the Justice Ministry has investigated more than 6,000 alleged vote-buying cases, involving more than 11,000 people. Prosecutors have also indicted some 40 people for allegedly helping candidates to buy votes, according to statistics released by the ministry.

Faced with declining popularity, the DPP is fighting an uphill battle, hoping it will not lose too many seats as the parliamentary polls would be an indicator to the crucial presidential elections on March 22.

Chen, who is also chairman of the DPP, has been campaigning in full force island-wide, hoping his efforts can help turn the tide.

He has been giving interviews to local television stations and news media, defending himself and his government, hoping to prop up the sagging support for the DPP.

He has even revisited a site in his southern hometown of Tainan, where he and his then running mate Annette Lu were shot, to stir up passion for the party.

The 2004 incident on the eve of the presidential election saw Chen was slightly grazed by a home-made bullet while Ms Lu was hit by a similar bullet in the knee.

Chen, who has set a goal of winning 50 seats, has said the DPP is known for its ability to turn the tide and win at the last minute.

In his 2000 presidential poll and re-election race in 2004, Chen trailed the opposition from the start and ended up winning both races by a slim margin.

But analysts said the DPP's defeat this time is assured - it is just a matter of how big the defeat will be.

"Given the public's frustration over the government, I predict the DPP will garner around 32 to 38 seats," said political commentator Shen Fu-hsiung, a former DPP parliamentarian.

KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has been busy canvassing votes in southern Taiwan - the DPP's stronghold, as opposed to the KMT's stronghold in the north.

Ma is running for president in March against his DPP opponent, former premier Frank Hsieh, and has been leading in early opinion polls.

A total of 17 million people are eligible to vote on Saturday, but turnout could be less than 50 per cent as many voters, tired of political bickering between the DPP and KMT and poor livelihoods, might not go to the polls, pundits said.

The KMT has accused Chen of turning the parliament elections into a battle between Taiwan and China as most of Chen's campaign rhetoric has focused on branding the KMT as a pro-China party which will sell out Taiwan if it controls the parliament. The idea is to consolidate support from hardcore pro-independence people and encourage voters to denounce the KMT.

Two competing referendums will also be held Saturday. One, initiated by the DPP, asks whether the KMT should return the ill- gotten assets it acquired when in government between 1949 and 2000. The other, initiated by the KMT, asks voters to decide whether to make the DPP return the wealth it has acquired in the past eight years through alleged corruption practices. ( Dpa )

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