TAIWAN votes tomorrow in its freest election ever after a campaign crackling with fireworks, pistol fire, and the tumult of democratic reform. Amid madcap and illegal campaigning, islanders for the first time will select legislators from the ruling Nationalist (Kuomintang or KMT) Party and a legal opposition.
However, little actual power is at stake. The ruling party has put only about one-third of the island's legislative seats up for grabs, along with provincial, mayoral, and other local posts.
Thus, the political significance of the election lies on the campaign trail - in the limited ability of the opposition to challenge an authoritarian party that has ruled the island since losing a civil war to Communist forces on Mainland China 40 years ago, analysts say.
Opposition leaders claim that Nationalist candidates have hampered their challenge by bribing voters throughout much of the ruling party's political network.
``Election '89 is not a real election in the real sense,'' says Tsai Shih-Yuan, spokesman for the Democratic Progressive Party, (DPP). The DPP is the leading opposition force, holding 12 seats in the legislature. ``Bribery is rampant, and we suspect this will be an election Latin American style,'' Mr. Tsai says.
United States Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, chairman of the Asian-Pacific Affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee, arrived Thursday night to observe the elections. The Taiwanese government denies that vote-buying is pervasive, but adds that such practices are hard to monitor.
The campaign trail for many candidates has been treacherous. Several of them have been shot at or received death threats, victims of extortionists or political opponents, during the island's struggle for democracy. The police have offered campaigners bodyguards, bulletproof vests, and telephone hot lines to local police stations since a candidate and leader of the opposition were attacked.
Facing obstacles to multiparty politicking, the opposition has resorted to illicit and spicy campaign tactics.
The 32 members of the opposition's New Country Alliance have defied the law and openly called on the state to renounce its claim to be the government of all China and declare independence.
Such a move would allow the opposition to vie for about two-thirds of the legislative seats held by elderly lawmakers elected on the mainland in 1947 and 1948.
The call for independence threatens the ruling party's guaranteed legislative majority and hits at the heart of the government's claim to legitimacy. The state considers the movement seditious, and has jailed several dissidents who have publicly called for independence. Beijing has implied that it would invade Taiwan if the island declares itself an independent nation.
Opposition candidates say the illegal independence movement is aimed as much at breaking the Nationalist's near-monopoly on power as at making the island an independent nation.
``One chief motivation for people who support independence is to overthrow the KMT and its control over politics and business,'' says DPP candidate Chou Hui-Ying. Ms. Chou's husband was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison for advocating independence. She seeks sympathy votes by passing out handbills with drawings of him behind bars.
Fugitive independence advocate Kuo Pei-Hung appeared last week at a rally for Mr. Chou in one of many incidents in which DPP candidates have flirted with arrest. After Mr. Kuo's speech, organizers turned off the stage lights and put on black masks to confuse police, who have offered $84,600 for information leading to his arrest.
In another defiant gesture, the opposition yesterday broadcast a campaign advertisement from a mobile television station. The broadcast sought to break through a de facto ban on DPP campaigning on the airwaves imposed by the island's three TV stations, DPP spokesman Tsai says. The stations are owned by the KMT, or the government.
In the most provocative of unorthodox tactics used by opposition candidates, ex-model and Labor Party member Hsu Hsiao-Tan has emulated Italy's ``Ciciolina'' (a former pornography queen now a member of the Italian legislature) and disrobed for a campaign photograph in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Ms. Hsu says that if she is elected she will bare herself in Taiwan's legislature.
Opposition candidates say that it is only through wacky campaigning - one candidate drove through the city of Khohsiung in a bulldozer, promising to plow away ``dirty politics'' - that they can break into government-controlled news media.