LIKE a bona fide candidate, China is running a bellicose cross-strait campaign to sway voters in Taiwan's legislative election against pro-independence candidates.
Some 400 candidates are vying for 164 legislative seats ahead of Saturday's parliamentary poll, which could alter the island's power balance and shape its nerve-wracked ties with its giant rival across the Taiwan Strait.
In Taiwan's boisterous election style, politicians debate corruption, health care, housing, and mass transit. But wielding war threats and war games, Beijing wants to ensure Taiwan voters have only one issue in mind: reunification with mainland China.
In what has become a series of military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwan, China launched a new round of war games last week. More are expected ahead of Taiwan's first directly elected presidential poll to be held next March.
Using armed police and militias for the first time and unveiling new Russian-made fighter aircraft, the Chinese military conducted large-scale exercises in Fujian Province, just across from Taiwan. Chinese newspapers have featured front-page photos of Chinese leaders reviewing military forces storming a beach. In a ploy that caused ripples in Taiwan, Beijing redesignated the exercise area from a military zone to a war zone.
China's changing threats
On Tuesday, China heightened the war of nerves through Hong Kong press reports. Citing internal Communist Party documents, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing would not wait for an open declaration of independence to invade Taiwan, as threatened in the past. China could even attack if there were ''covert'' steps toward independence, the newspaper said.
Since last summer, Beijing has been trying to keep the heat on Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Last week's military exercises were the third since last June when Mr. Lee made a so-called ''private visit'' to the United States.
The trip enraged Beijing over the leader's efforts to boost Taiwan's international prestige. China has tried to blunt independence fervor on the island, which has never declared independence and Beijing considers a rebel province. Both sides say they support reunification.
''This is a joint-military exercise conducted by the ... Navy and Air Force of the People's Liberation Army [PLA],'' said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang, ''and any election taking place in Taiwan cannot alter the fact that Taiwan is a part of China.
''Should there be a country attempting to encroach on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, it will meet with a counterstrike from the PLA,'' he said.
''China intends to make it crystal clear: Taiwan is part of the mainland,'' says a Chinese analyst. ''Taiwan must understand that there is no alternative.''
With one eye on China, Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party is scrambling to maintain its comfortable control of the island's parliament. After years of dominating Taiwanese politics and scoring a series of sweeping election victories in recent years, the Nationalists are scrambling to preserve their 31-seat parliamentary majority.
If the party does badly in Saturday's poll, President Lee could face leadership challenges within his own party. He is regarded as the leading candidate in Taiwan's presidential election next spring.
The major opposition comes from the Democratic Progressive Party, which officially backs independence from China and holds 50 parliamentary seats. The New Party, a splinter faction of the ruling party comprised of old-line Nationalists who still support retaking the mainland from the Communists, is hoping to increase its current seven legislative seats.
Small investors jittery
But Chinese warnings are unnerving some of Taiwan's electorate and changing the political landscape, Western analysts say. Since the standoff with Beijing erupted last summer, the Taiwanese stock market is down by one-third. That has made Taiwan's small investors jittery and angry, particularly those with projects in China.
The uncertainty has also nudged Taiwan's political parties away from radical stands. Both the Nationalists and the New Party have backed away from open endorsements of reunification. Indeed, the New Party, a breakaway faction of Nationalist dissidents who say Mr. Lee has pushed the Nationalists too far to the center, says it does not favor immediate reunification and pledged to defend Taiwan if invaded. The Democratic Progressive Party does not trumpet its pro-independence stand and modulates it with calls for Taiwanese autonomy.
''What the Chinese Communists did was provocative,'' said Kao Koong-lian, an official with the Mainland Affairs Council in Taiwan, the official government agency in charge of contact with China. ''They should not create unnecessary tension in the Taiwan Strait at a sensitive time when we are going to hold our parliamentary elections.''