TAIPEI, TAIWAN — In Taiwan it was a moment of high drama: Opposition candidates Lien Chan and James Soong - torchbearers of the mainland Chinese nationalists who escaped here in 1949 and have long claimed China as their own - stretched on the ground next to their wives and kissed the Taiwanese soil. Mr. Lien's 20-second prostration on March 13, shown repeatedly on TV this week, took place at a rally here of 400,000 flag-waving voters, as the island of 23 million prepares for its third presidential election this Saturday.
Just days before, supporters of President Chen Shui-bian, a leader in a move to define Taiwan as an independent state separate from China, formed a human chain in a "holding hands" rally that stretched across the island. That event brought out a staggering 2 million supporters of Mr. Chen's ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP).
In the past decade Taiwan has developed one of Asia's most vibrant democracies, as well as an extremely colorful campaign culture. Voters don makeup and costumes that would shame Green Bay Packer fans. Sound trucks broadcasting slogans patrol the streets. Cellphone greetings are set in the voice of candidates. Paraphernalia - like the popular Lien and Chen dolls that wiggle their hips, or party hats, jackets, wristwatches, and mugs - sell out. And yes, blogging has arrived in Taiwan.
However, in the run-up to this year's election, widely seen as a crucial vote over the future and identity of Taiwan, voter interest and electioneering have outpaced the grandest expectations of either party.
In almost any category - participation, theatrics, media coverage, passion, new technology, and, in recent days, hard-hitting verbal attacks - the scale of the island-wide campaign is magnitudes greater than seen in 1996 or 2000. It has, if nothing else, been a boon for a two-party direct elections system in a society ruled for half a century by the Kuomintang (KMT) - the Chinese nationalists - analysts say. Turnout is expected to top 80 percent; in the past week, 100,000 Taiwanese have returned to vote from diasporic centers such as Singapore, Vancouver, Shanghai, and New York.
"This is an unprecedented moment," says Andrew Yang, a political analyst in Taiwan. "The identity of Taiwan is the central issue, and people feel that deeply."
The vigor of Taiwan's voters is seen in both camps, and is found especially outside the capital Taipei. Many have attended up to a dozen rallies or events. Yesterday at a DPP rally at a school athletic track in Fong Yuan, two hours south, a farmer in a green jacket, the party color, said he drove 45 miles to blow green horns, wave green flags, and shout the DPP slogan, "Believe in Taiwan!" The farmer, who didn't give his name, says he had been to at least 10 other events. "If Chen loses," he says, "I'm going to cry, because I worry our reforms will be lost."
In previous presidential campaigns here, observers wondered how effective democracy would be in Taiwan. The largest rallies in Taipei, however, brought 100,000 to 150,000 people, considered substantial. Yet this year, both the KMT and DPP have reported numbers as high as half a million at some of their rallies. In recent days, it appears the KMT is making a strong run, and some analysts say that the KMT slogans calling for a change in leadership are having an effect. DPP officials deny this, claiming that their internal polls suggest the race is even. By law, public polls are banned 10 days prior to the elections.
Retuning Taiwanese, usually businessmen, were met all week at the airport by hundreds of well- organized KMT groups who shouted that Lien was the only candidate with sufficient experience to deal with China. Planes arriving from mainland China were filled with mostly KMT supporters. One Anglo-American businessman emerged smiling from customs, wearing a red silk jacket with a KMT slogan, a jaunty KMT hat, and KMT flags. "It was a pretty wild flight," he admits. "But they were so friendly that I just joined in."
The election became a matter of added international significance last year when Chen called for a voter referendum against Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan - to be held along with the vote. It is unclear whether that strategy, designed partly to bring out pro-Taiwan voters, will work.
In recent days campaigning has intensified further. Chen's wife has been forced to apologize for what appears to be insider trading.
A Taiwanese tycoon, Chen Yu-hao, who escaped to the US rather than face criminal charges for embezzlement, has been holding daily press conferences via satellite from a five-star hotel in Los Angeles, telling how he made large donations to the DPP, all of which was not accounted for but which was legal. The tycoon, who has promised to jump out of his hotel window if anyone can prove he is lying, has also admitted that he gave 100 million NT ($3 million) to the KMT. Yet in a politicized news climate here, most attention has focused on the smaller sum he gave Chen's party.
The battle of ads and images has also been intense. While the DPP has run ads comparing Chen to US President John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, and to Winston Churchill prior to World War II, the KMT last week ran full-page ads in three mainstream newspapers that compare the tenure of Chen with that of German dictator Adolf Hitler, and called for the "termination" of Chen's "dictatorship."