- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2006

As Taiwan’s voters head to the polls today in two key mayoral contests that could determine the course of the 2008 presidential race, one major player has been conspicuously absent in the raucous campaign: China.

Unlike in recent Taiwanese votes, the mainland has stayed firmly on the sidelines, even though the votes could determine the legacy of President Chen Shui-bian, whose independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has repeatedly unnerved the communist leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

“I think the PRC has learned its lesson about interfering,” said David Tawei Lee, representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Taiwan’s diplomatic mission in Washington

“Every time the mainland tries to influence our vote, they end up helping the other side,” Mr. Lee said in a luncheon with editors and reporters from The Washington Times this week.

The Taiwanese diplomat declined to predict how today’s mayoral votes will go in Taipei, the capital, and the southern port of Kaohsiung, the island’s second-largest city. But Mr. Lee said it is generally acknowledged by Taiwanese political analysts that the voting will prove a major challenge for Mr. Chen’s DPP and could give the opposition Nationalist Party a major boost for 2008.



Polls suggest that Nationalist candidate Hau Lung-bin, the son of a former military strongman, will win comfortably in Taipei, an opposition stronghold.

That win should burnish the credentials of outgoing Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party chairman and a likely candidate for the presidential race in 2008.

The more closely watched race is in Kaohsiung. The industrial city of 1.6 million has long been a DPP power base, but corruption scandals swirling around the administration of Mr. Chen, including formal charges of mishandling government funds lodged last month against Mr. Chen’s wife, have fueled hopes among Nationalists that they can win the mayoral contest in Kaohsiung as well.

Nationalist candidate Huang Chun-ying, an ally of Mr. Ma, held a lead over the DPP’s Chen Chu, a former labor minister, and three other candidates in the Kaohsiung race, with polls suggesting the government’s corruption woes are overshadowing other concerns.

“As long as President Chen stays, the party could hardly get out of the shadows,” Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University, told Agence France-Presse this week.

Mr. Chen, who achieved approval ratings of 75 percent when he took office in 2000, has seen his popularity slump below 20 percent. His two terms have been marked by repeated jousting with Beijing — and occasional warnings from Washington — over moves by the government that seemed to test the waters for independence.

China’s largely hands-off approach to the vote is in sharp contrast to past efforts by the mainland against Taiwanese politicians seen as favoring independence.

Former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji warned of “dire consequences” ahead of Mr. Chen’s landmark 2000 win and sent clear signals to Taiwanese business and opinion leaders of its preference for KMT leaders in Mr. Chen’s cliffhanger 2004 re-election triumph.

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