TAIPEI, TAIWAN — TAIWAN's first truly free legislative election is set to remake the political landscape at home and in the region.
Although parliamentary slugfests of the past have given way to the decorum of elections today, tomorrow's poll is nonetheless a high-stakes contest that will shape the balance of power in Taiwan's emerging democracy and relations with rival China.
The poll, predicts Michael Kau, a political scientist, will bring "a very significant shift in the control of political power in the government as well as in the [ruling KMT] party. There will be a complete overhaul of the power structure in Taiwan."
In colorful rallies and lively debates that have revived interest among the island's 13 million people, 348 candidates are battling fiercely for 125 seats in the new Legislative Yuan.
After four decades of a legislature dominated by geriatric politicians elected on the mainland, the elections will produce the first completely elected body since the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), was routed from the communist mainland in 1949. The election is a watershed in Taiwan's passage from dictatorship to democracy, which began in 1987 when the late President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law, and was accelerated under Chiang's successor, Lee Teng-hui.
Although the KMT is expected to emerge with a majority, the faction-ridden ruling party has become an issue itself as native Taiwanese members battle with mainlanders over vote-buying and the influence of big business in the party.
The KMT has also split over its traditional goal of unification with China. A conservative KMT faction urges eventual unification with the mainland (albeit under an interim, noncommunist government) while a rival ethnic Taiwanese-dominated KMT faction endorses the new option of "two Chinas."
Meanwhile, Beijing, which also seeks unification, has tried periodically to influence the debate, threatening to invade Taiwan unless calls for independence are squelched.
The political opposition and advocates of a "one China, one Taiwan" policy have gained popularity by replacing strident pro-independence cries of the past with more measured appeals for Taiwan's separateness.
Rebounding from poor results in 1991 elections for the National Assembly, in which it got less than 25 percent of the vote, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could receive 30 percent in its best showing in the three national elections in which it has been allowed to participate.
The DPP, which is fielding an array of prominent dissidents and formerly jailed activists, has shunted aside its calls for an independent Taiwan to focus on issues of welfare, the environment, and "money politics."
The role of money has now become the biggest issue in the race, which is likely to be the most expensive yet. Two popular KMT politicians and Cabinet members resigned in the last two months in a revolt over official corruption.
The resignations of Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency director Jaw Shao-kang and Finance Minister Wang Chien-hsien have thrown into sharp focus the ruling party's reliance on big business for funding.
For years, businessmen stayed out of politics as the ruling KMT, controlling a vast array of businesses, channeled lucrative contracts and other public largesse to keep their support. But the breakdown of the KMT is drawing businessmen into the fray in unprecedented numbers, a trend that some analysts say could lead to a government under the control of tycoon-legislators.
At a recent campaign rally, Mr. Jaw, the resigned environmental chief, warned that corruption could spread "if our new legislature is dominated by golden oxen."
At the local level, analysts say, elections are decided by grass-roots issues, personal contacts with local power-brokers, and endemic vote-buying. The KMT's vast grass-roots organization and massive financial resources give it the advantage in holding onto provincial and municipal power, political observers say.