Page last updated at 00:24 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Taiwan voters seek candidate of change

By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

Kuomintang supporters at a rally in Kaohsiung
The Kuomintang party has been making gains in the south

In politics, it is said, Taiwan is a divided island.

The north is a stronghold of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and its "pan-blue" political allies.

The south firmly favours the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its "pan-green" allies.

The career paths of the two presidential candidates reflect that pattern.

Frank Hsieh, the DPP's candidate, is a former two-term mayor of Taiwan's second largest city, Kaohsiung, in the south.

His opponent, KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou, served two terms as mayor of Taipei, the island's capital in the north.

Yet legislative elections in January overturned the political truism, bringing the KMT a landslide win and large gains in the DPP's southern heartland.

People feel no hope, I think the KMT can bring the people a brighter future
Lee Zhen-hua,
repair shop owner

Former DPP voters like 47-year-old Lee Chen-her, who runs a small dried food business, have switched allegiances.

"It's time for a change", he said. "I'm getting desperate."

"The economy is bad, especially for small businesses like mine. Things are getting worse and worse."

Across town, Lee Zhen-hua, 44, now answers the telephone himself in his car repair shop, having cut staff to save costs.

He once voted DPP but says he will vote for the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou.

"I feel very disappointed. People feel no hope. I think the KMT can bring the people a brighter future," he said.

"During the past few years, I can see in South Korea and even India, their GDP are higher than in Taiwan. I can't accept this. I want a government that will give the people a better life."

This, in a city in which Frank Hsieh should feel confident of support.

'Strong will'

Mr Hsieh was elected mayor in 1998 by the slimmest margin. But when he left office in 2005, he had the highest approval rating of any city or county head.

Frank Hsieh (file image)
Mr Hsieh favours stronger ties with China, unlike the current president

He still enjoys strong personal support among locals, who credit him with helping to transform Kaohsiung's image, cleaning up a dirty industrial port city and improving public transport.

"I support the DPP stand... they emphasise Taiwan first, not China first. That's the big difference between Frank Hsieh and Ma Ying-jeou," Hsieh supporter Joshua Su said at a campaign rally in Fongshan, Kaohsiung County.

He accused Mr Ma of being indecisive. "Mr Hsieh is a better leader. Ma Ying-jeou - he doesn't do anything, commit to anything."

Frank Hsieh was a founder member of the DPP.

He rose to prominence as a lawyer defending dissidents arrested during an anti-government parade in Kaohsiung in 1979, when Taiwan was under martial law, and has been closely associated with key events during Taiwan's democratisation.

But he has had setbacks.

One of the most serious was when he ran as deputy presidential candidate in 1996 and was accused of taking inappropriate political donations from a sect leader.

The sect leader was charged with fraud and the scandal forced Mr Hsieh to withdraw from politics temporarily.

Map showing Taiwan and China

Like his KMT opponent, Mr Hsieh says he favours better ties with China, including closer economic links. Yet the two men differ over the pace and degree.

Mr Hsieh has strongly attacked his opponent's plan to push for an economic "common market" with China, warning it would sell out Taiwan's interests and lead to many job losses.

During the campaign, Mr Hsieh has been careful to distance himself from President Chen.

The president takes a much more confrontational approach towards China, but his popularity has plummeted amid a series of corruption scandals, a sluggish economy and tense relations with both China and the island's main ally, the US.

"Mr Hsieh is a leader of great vision, a man of strong will and leadership. He's very good at communicating with his whole team, so they can work towards a common goal" said Kaohsiung legislator Kuang Bi-ling, who is regarded as close to Mr Hsieh.

"He has better governance and showed better leadership [than Ma] when he was faced with challenges. He stands for the protection of the Taiwan people's benefits."

'Executive ability'

But even his most ardent supporters concede Mr Hsieh is facing a tough battle against Ma Ying-jeou, who has been leading in opinion polls.

Ma Ying-jeou (file image)
Many voters believe Mr Ma could bring change to Taiwan

Telegenic Mr Ma is Harvard-educated, fluent in English and a former justice minister with a reputation for integrity. He was groomed for a political career from an early age.

He is particularly popular with women and the young.

Once nicknamed "non-stick" and "Mr Teflon" for his efforts in fighting corruption, his image is a little less shiny since standing trial - though he was cleared - on allegations of misusing a special allowance fund while Taipei mayor.

"He's an honest person; generous, energetic," said Huang Chung-ying, who has known Ma for more than 20 years and helps run his campaign headquarters in Kaohsiung.

"His executive ability is very good. He's very detail-oriented. He knows how to move Taiwan to a better tomorrow".

The tight election race has often focused less on policy than on personal attacks, with the two camps accusing each other of smear tactics.

Liao Dachi, at the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University, believes that is because the two candidates have both shifted to very similar centrist positions - and the campaign has become more about personality.

"They are two different kinds of people. And their backgrounds can also tell their differences," she said. "Ma Ying-jeou comes from a middle-class, stable life. He knows his goal; his father tried to nurture him as a leader.

"But Frank Hsieh comes from a relatively poor family. His political career is not as successful. So he knows how to fight, to understand people's feelings;... he came from the grass roots."

The last few days in the campaign will be crucial.

Opinion polls in Taiwan have never been very reliable and Frank Hsieh, while not considered the front-runner, is an accomplished campaigner.

His supporters say he could yet pull off a dramatic election upset, as he has done in the past.

Profile: Ma Ying-jeou
20 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Frank Hsieh
20 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwanese rally ahead of election
16 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
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21 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan torch relay for UN entry
24 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan shows off military might
10 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific
UN rejects membership for Taiwan
19 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: China
11 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Taiwan
15 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


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