Page last updated at 23:22 GMT, Wednesday, 13 July 2005 00:22 UK

Taiwan's KMT prepares for voting first

By Caroline Gluck
BBC, Taiwan

Ma Ying-jeou
Ma Ying-jeou is seen as popular among female and young voters
For the first time since it was founded 110 years ago, Taiwan's main opposition party - the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) - is preparing to hold democratic contested elections for a new party chairman.

More than a million members are eligible to vote in the 16 July poll.

It is a hotly contested vote, with two of the party's vice-chairmen - legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng and Taipei city mayor Ma Ying-jeou - competing for the top job.

Emile Sheng of Soochow University says that whatever the result, the vote itself will help improve the public image of the KMT.

"It used to be an authoritarian party where every decision comes from the top," he said. "In the past Kuomintang leaders were appointed by former leaders."

"This is the first time they have two viable contestants running for the chairmanship. It [marks] the transformation to a real democratic party."

At stake is not just who will take the helm of the party, but who could become its chosen candidate for the 2008 presidential elections.

Two rivals

For KMT legislator Lai Shyh Bao, Ma Ying-jeou's campaign director, that is the key reason he is backing Taipei city's popular mayor.

"Media surveys show Ma is the most popular political figure in Taiwan... He's the man most likely to be able to lead us into government again," he said.

Wang Jin-pyng
Wang Jin-pyng has friends across the political spectrum
Ma Ying-jeou's parents were mainlanders who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war. His father was a KMT official.

Mr Ma, who was educated in Harvard, once served as minister of justice - and still retains a reputation for being incorruptible.

Although he is regarded as favouring eventual unification with mainland China, Mr Ma has strongly criticised China's lack of democracy and its human rights record.

His public image - as someone who is honest, clean cut, competent and reformist - has given him high ratings in opinion polls, especially among female and young voters.

But analysts say he lacks many friends within the party elite.

Wang Jin-pyng, by contrast, has developed a reputation as someone who is both politically shrewd and conciliatory, able to work with people across the political divide.

Nine years older than his rival, he was born in Kaohsiung county in southern Taiwan - and is more relaxed speaking Taiwanese than Mandarin Chinese.

"As a leader, Wang has the ability that Ma doesn't have," claimed Chiang Min-Chin, Mr Wang's campaign spokesman.

"Mayor Ma is a local mayor - he doesn't have such ability to co-ordinate different campaigns to shape, to group us as a strong opposite power against [President] Chen Shui-bian," he said.

"Right now, the KMT faces crisis. You need experienced leadership, not young or green leadership," added Mr Chiang.

Possible split?

Many within the party had urged current chairman Lien Chan to stay on in the post.

They fear the KMT might not survive a divisive election campaign.

"This kind of worry is understandable because in the past 10 years, the KMT has experienced many splits," said KMT spokeswoman Cheng Li-wen.

"Those experiences were fatal for the party. That's why we lose important elections...

"But I think exactly because of this kind of worry, it will stop this situation. Everybody is trying their best to not let this kind of situation happen."

That view is echoed by Emile Sheng, who believes that the two contestants acknowledge, whatever the outcome of the race, they will need each other's support in the future.

"I think both sides understand that... the other side is actually their future ally, not their enemy," he said.

Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (R) and parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng (L), hug each other, 2 July
The two candidates have pledged to work with each other after the poll
Analysts predict a relatively high turnout for this election.

President Chen's governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which lacks a parliamentary majority, is also watching closely.

DPP Secretary General Lee Yi-yang praised the democratic process of the election, saying: "This gradually helps Taiwan's party politics move forward in a better and healthier direction... a move to multi-party democracy."

While the KMT election candidates are polar opposites in personality, little separates them policy-wise.

Both have pledged to continue the cross-strait dialogue begun by Lien Chan during his recent historic visit to China, as well as increase the drive to attract more young voters.

Both have talked of the need for party reform, but have also been critical of the governing DPP.

What may be the most crucial factor in who wins this race is just how many people turn up to vote on the day.

A high turnout is expected to favour Mr Ma, who remains the front-runner in opinion polls.

But anything can happen, and the candidates both plan to campaign right up to the very end.

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