Four years ago, Taiwanese cast votes in the island’s first ever direct presidential election as China lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Strait. This time around, the fireworks are coming not from the Chinese mainland, but from a three-way, neck-and-neck race that has Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) pulling out all the stops to remain in power.

Going into today’s election, Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian, the former mayor of Taipei who is running on an anticorruption platform, seems to have the most momentum behind him.

Meanwhile, the KMT is casting about for ways to save its candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, who has run a lackluster campaign despite the benefits of a robust economy and popular president behind him. Lien’s problems have been compounded by the breakaway candidacy of James Soong, a former KMT heavyweight who has lured away many of the party’s traditional supporters.

Stability and reform have been the top themes in the race. Lien and the KMT have warned of a war with China and economic chaos if the opposition wins. Chen and Soong, meanwhile, have both fashioned themselves as reformers, forcing Lien to unveil his own plans for cleaning up corruption in the political system.

Chen’s party, the DPP, stood for declaring outright independence from China until last May, when it adopted a resolution declaring that Taiwan had already become a de facto sovereign state. Chen has said repeatedly during the campaign that he would not declare independence unless China attacked.

In a clear reference to Chen, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said on Wednesday that “every possible treachery” was being used in the campaign “to get the one who is for Taiwan independence to win.” Zhu’s comments came nearly a month after the release of a white paper by the Chinese government that said Taiwan risked war if it continued to drag its feet on reunification talks.

Beijing considers Taiwan a “breakaway province” and aims to bring it back into the fold under the “one country, two systems” formula applied to Hong Kong and Macau after they reverted to China. The overwhelming majority of Taiwanese, however, reject the proposal, according to a poll conducted by Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council after the release of the white paper.

Despite China’s recent bellicose rhetoric, military analysts believe it could be decades before Beijing has the ability to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan.

If the Chinese government’s intention is to prevent a Chen victory, it may be going about things the wrong way. Joseph Wu, a political analyst at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said the hostility toward Chen can only strengthen his hand as the candidate with the strongest “Taiwan consciousness,” and comes at a time when Chen is emerging as the true heir to the legacy of popular President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first native-born chief executive.

Wu said that if China decided to undertake any last-minute military maneuvers in the runup to the election, it “will guarantee Chen Shui-bian’s election.”

The KMT’s attempts to take advantage of China’s threats have caused some dissension within the government. Chen Pi-chao resigned from his post as National Security Council adviser last week and slammed what he saw as scare tactics by the KMT. The day after quitting, he threw his support behind the DPP’s Chen, saying he was disturbed by those who used China’s threats “to intimidate their own compatriots.”

Soong, meanwhile, has argued that he is the candidate who would be best able to improve relations with Beijing. He has blamed Lee for causing unnecessary tensions by declaring last July that relations between Beijing and Taipei should be conducted according to a “state-to-state” model.

“You would have to endure a poor government for another four years if the KMT candidate were elected,” Soong told voters last weekend. “And if the DPP candidate were elected, you would have to worry about a war breaking out across the strait.”

Some observers feel that the obsession with China has diverted attention from the most important issue in this election — political reform.

But the issues of stability and reform crashed head-on last Monday, when Taiwan’s stock market suffered its largest one-day plunge ever. The KMT said the 6.6 percent plummet in share prices was evidence that investors feared the consequences of an opposition victory, but both Chen and Soong charged that the KMT — the world’s richest political party — had engineered the fall by selling off shares held by companies affiliated with the party.

Lien has promised to put all KMT assets into a trust if elected, while Chen has said that as president he would launch an independent investigation into the KMT’s fortune so that anything that has been “stolen” from the citizens of Taiwan over the years can be seized.

The KMT’s reputation is also tainted by allegations of vote buying, which could play a significant role in the outcome of Saturday’s election. “In such a tight race, the winning margin is going to be very small, so vote buying might just sway the voting results,” political analyst Wu said.

Vote buying has been key to the KMT’s success in local elections and National Assembly elections, Wu said. The feeling within the party is that “if you do it, you might not win, but if you don’t do it, you’re going to lose for sure,” he said.

Chen has encouraged voters to take the KMT’s money but vote for him. “You take back just a tiny amount of your money from the KMT,” he exhorted voters earlier this month in Taichung County in central Taiwan.

In southern Taiwan, considered a bastion of DPP support, DPP lawmaker Su Huan-chi said last week that the KMT had amassed several million dollars to give out to local party officials for vote buying. In Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, the going price for a vote is $15, according to DPP lawmaker Chen Chi-mai. DPP analysts believe that between 30,000 to 50,000 votes might be bought.

There is a strong sense among observers that Taiwan is at a critical stage in its democratic development. When Chen picked up a coveted endorsement last weekend from Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh — who has been called “the conscience of Taiwan” — the chemistry scholar said he could no longer stand on the political sidelines while members of organized crime groups went stumping for Chen’s rivals.

“I share a deep feeling with many people that Taiwan has arrived at another historical crossroads,” Lee said after announcing he would head Chen’s National Policy Advisory Committee. “If we do not move forward, we will regress.”

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