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Surprises in Taiwan's mayoral race

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

Campaigning for Saturday's polls has heated up
Campaigning for Saturday's polls has heated up

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Taiwan Strait: Asia's troubled waters 

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Surprising developments in the mayoral race in the southern Taiwan metropolis of Kaohsiung could hurt the chances of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) hanging on to power beyond 2004.

Polls are scheduled for Saturday to elect the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung.

Until about a month ago, the incumbent Mayor of Kaohsiung, Frank Hsieh, looked like a shoo-in because the city was a stronghold of pro-independence sentiments in the self-ruled island.

Hsieh, an eloquent lawyer and former DPP chairman, was leading the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, former vice-mayor Huang Jun-ying, by more than ten percentage points in opinion polls.

Huang's chances were low because the anti-DPP votes could also go to candidates backed by the other mayor opposition party, the People's First Party (PFP), as well as two colorful independent candidates.

Last week, however, the charismatic leader of the pro-unification PFP, James Soong, threw his support behind Huang.

At the same time, the KMT, which lost its status as the ruling party when the DPP's Chen Shui-bian was elected president in 2000, was putting more resources on boosting Huang's candidacy.

This was partly due to the fact that the incumbent KMT mayor of Taipei, the photogenic Ma Ying-jeou, is expected to give challenger, the DPP's Lee Ying-yuan, a sound drubbing on election night.

Neck and neck

Latest polls from Kaohsiung said Hsieh and Huang were running neck and neck.

Taiwan media have quoted DPP strategists as saying if they lose the city halls of both Taipei and Kaohsiung to the KMT, President Chen's re-election prospects in early 2004 will be dealt a big blow.

On Tuesday night, both Chen and the former president Lee Teng-hui, who was kicked out of the KMT in 2001, were in Kaohsiung to attend a campaign rally in support of Hsieh, who has been hurt by a severe recession in southern Taiwan.

Lee, sometimes called "the godfather of Taiwan independence," told the crowd of several thousand DPP supporters: "Long live Taiwan democracy! Taiwan comes first! Re-elect Frank Hsieh to a second term!"

And Chen told Kaohsiung voters that Hsieh was "fighting for his [political] life."

Former president Lee also made it clear he supported Chen's bid for re-election in March 2004.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Taipei said while the Chinese government would much prefer Hang to win in Arousing, it has kept quiet about the election.

The mainland media has largely ignored the mayoral races, perhaps for fear that open support for KMT candidates would have a counter-productive result in the polls.

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