Much more is at stake in the legislative elections that Taiwan will hold tomorrow than the local issues that have dominated most of the past two weeks of campaigning. With an organized opposition party competing for the first time against the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, the island will take a critical step in the cautious advance toward democracy that President Chiang Ching-kuo initiated earlier this year.
No one expects the Kuomintang, which normally commands some 70 percent of the vote in island-wide polls, to be turned out of power. And no one expects this election to be any less fraught with apparent irregularities than others in the recent past.
But whatever the results of the Dec. 6 elections, a vital new issue will have emerged in Taiwan, one that is likely to dominate the political scene for years to come: the right of Taiwan's 19 million residents to determine their future democratically.
For both the governing party and its opponents, it is a political passage laden with pitfalls. President Chiang and his supporters have long recognized that political modernization is essential to Taiwan's future stability. But they are clearly seeking to isolate this process from the sensitive questions of national identity and independence.
Throughout the year, the President's most threatening critics have been within his own ranks. These Kuomintang hard-liners argue that liberalization will undermine the party's ideological cornerstone - its claim to be the rightful ruler of mainland China. It may be difficult in the long run, many analysts believe, for Chiang to prove the hard-liners wrong.
Since it was founded in September, the Democratic Progressive Party has limited its chief political demand to ``self-determination.''
Like the loose-knit factions that previously constituted the Kuomintang's opposition, the new party has used issues ranging from human rights to industrial pollution as the ground on which to attack the ruling party.
``We aren't going to touch on the independence issue,'' said Hsieh Chang-ting, a Taipei city councilman and a leader of the Democratic Progressives.
``The Kuomintang would attack us too severely for it,'' he added.
The new party has clearly signaled its willingness to operate within the political boundaries set by the Kuomintang.
The Democratic Progressives, however, also recognize that too conciliatory a stance could cost it support among Taiwan's island-born population, which comprises about 85 percent of the island's total number of residents. This majority has been effectively excluded from the political process since the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan before the 1949 communist takeover of the mainland.
The opposition has been vague, for instance, as to whether it accepts the national Constitution promulgated by the Kuomintang.
Nor has it renounced ties with the Taiwan independence movement, which is made up mainly of US-based groups.
The President has set both of these as conditions for formal recognition of the Democratic Progressives, which has not yet been extended.
The fine distinction Chiang is seeking between democracy and independence may not be possible, many political commentators suggest, because the Taiwanese majority does not share the Kuomintang's identity with the mainland.
The issue has been dramatized this week by the frustrated attempts of Hsu Hsin-liang, a leading Taiwan dissident, to enter the country after seven years of exile in the United States.
Mr. Hsu, who is wanted on sedition charges in Taiwan, has been a prominent figure in the Taiwan independence movement since he left the island in 1979. The dissident publisher, who readily compares himself with Benigno Aquino, the slain Filipino opposition leader, has attempted unsuccessfully to return to Taipei.
In interviews, Hsu has advanced himself as the leader of an overseas branch of the Democratic Progressives, although the party in Taiwan has not accepted him as such. Many analysts say that Hsu's presence in Taiwan would create serious political friction within the opposition camp.
However the political situation turns out in the coming days, it has already prompted a new sense of concern in mainland China.
As Chiang's political reforms have unfolded, Peking has markedly increased its calls for talks with the Kuomintang on the issue of Taiwan's reunification with the mainland. Peking has also bluntly denounced those who favor independence.
Ironically, China has all but acknowledged recently that the Kuomintang, its traditional enemy since the Chinese civil war in the 1930s, is its only ally in Taiwan.
Any shift of power away from the Kuomintang is certain to make it more difficult for China to negotiate Taiwan's reunification - a factor that is unlikely to have escaped Chiang's attention.