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Taiwan Election Considered Crucial to KMT's Fate  - 2004-12-10

Voters in Taiwan are preparing to go to the polls in parliamentary elections on Saturday. Officials in Mainland China will be watching the vote closely. They see the elections largely as a referendum on whether Taiwan will go ahead with constitutional and name changes - moves Beijing sees as steps toward formal independence.

The campaign's central theme has been the question of whether Taiwan should push for independence from China, which claims the island as a part of its territory. Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, when Nationalist forces fled the mainland and established a government-in-exile following their defeat by the Communists.

China threatens to attack the island if it moves toward independence. This threat will be on the minds of many voters when they go to the polls on Saturday.

President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party hopes to win control of the parliament, the Executive Yuan, for the first time from the Nationalist Kuomintang party, or KMT. Beijing fears that if the DPP wins control of the parliament, it will push through its pro-independence agenda. The KMT, which favors keeping the status quo and maintaining relatively good relations with Beijing, thus far has blocked the DPP efforts.

The DPP agenda includes holding a referendum on a new constitution in 2006 and possibly changing the island's official name from the "Republic of China" to "Taiwan" - plans that alarm Beijing officials.

The KMT, which until recently favored reunification with the mainland, ruled Taiwan for decades before losing ground to the DPP over the past 10 years. Following the party's narrow defeat in the March presidential election, some see this vote as a test of whether the party will survive at all.

Polls taken up until a week ago showed both camps in a dead heat.

With surveys showing that more Taiwanese favor independence, observers say the KMT is having to revise its stance. The party no longer considers reunification central to its platform - but rather something that should be decided by future generations.

Ho Szu-yin is a politics professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University and an advisor to the KMT. He says that if the party loses Saturday's election, changes will be necessary - including the possible replacement of chairman Lien Chan.

"He has done a wonderful job, but still society here calls for accountability," he said. "Right now, I don't know if the change would be limited to the leadership or to the personnel. But I guess some changes would have to be in the offing to have accountability."

The KMT has been laying off workers and shedding millions of dollars' worth of assets it accumulated when it monopolized power. Analysts say the downsizing is prompted by fear that a DPP controlled legislature might call for new investigations of the party's finances.

Analysts say the outcome of Saturday's elections could determine how the dispute with Beijing is ultimately resolved. In the worst case scenario, some fear a DPP victory eventually could lead to an attack from China. Others, however, say the consequences may not be so dire if the DPP wins a majority but not the two-thirds required to approve a constitutional amendment.

On Friday, the last day of campaigning, there were bomb threats and a small explosion near a Taipei train station. Although no one was injured, the threats caused concerns. In the March presidential election, President Chen suffered slight gunshot injuries in an apparent assassination attempt, although some opponents claimed it had been faked to draw in a sympathy vote.

The United States, which has an agreement to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, is eager to avoid a cross-strait confrontation and has called on both sides to avoid taking steps that would change the status quo.