Candidates in Taiwan shift into high gear as polls loom

Candidates in Taiwan shift into high gear as polls loom
Supporters of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT) chairman Eric Chu wave flags during a campaign rally for the 2016 presidential election in Chiayi, southern Taiwan on January 5, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

It is called the huangjin or golden weekend - so termed because of the immeasurable value in reaching out to voters in the final weekend before elections.

Yesterday, Taiwan's three presidential contenders and more than 500 legislative candidates from 18 political parties raced across the island - by high-speed rail, by train, by car - to squeeze every precious minute they could from it.

This Saturday, Taiwanese voters will choose their next president and parliamentarians in twin polls widely expected to turn the island an undisputed shade of green - the colour of the pro-independence coalition. Currently, the blue, or pro-unification, camp controls the presidency and the legislature.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Tsai Ing-wen, tipped to handily win the presidential race, received a superstar reception in her party's stronghold of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.

More than 100,000 people, according to DPP estimates, waved party flags, sang Taiwanese songs and mobbed the bespectacled 59- year-old as she made her way to the stage for an evening rally.

Stallholder Guo Hsiao-ling closed his shop earlier to snare a seat.

"I really want to be here to show my support to Xiao-ying," said the 45-year-old, referring to Dr Tsai.

In the morning, she visited her father's hometown in the coastal village of Fenggang. "Let this place become the hometown of the president on Jan 16," she said.

Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Eric Chu put on a brave face as he visited the northern port city of Keelung, traditionally a deep-blue bastion. It has fallen on hard times in recent years as its port role declined.

Firecrackers were set off and a supporter using a loudhailer spoke of how Dr Chu will help maintain stability on the island and across the Taiwan Strait, as the KMT chief and Mr Hau Lung-bin, a former Taipei mayor now running for the legislature, waved to residents from an open-top vehicle.

But there was a distinct chill in the air, and it was not just because of the 17 deg C weather.

Shopkeeper Tsai Fen, 65, did not mince her words when she said: "Taiwan is in bad shape and we're in even worse."

There was more love for the KMT in the afternoon, when the party organised a march in Taipei attended by heavyweights, including President Ma Ying-jeou. Some 150,000 turned out, according to the KMT.

Retired factory manager Kao Cheng-jen, 74, said: "I support a party that has a track record in helping Taiwan develop and prosper."

But almost all present were the elderly, underscoring how this election is witnessing a distinct generation schism in voting behaviour.

A moribund economy is hurting young Taiwanese in particular; in tandem, they are also ideologically alienated from the KMT's endorsement of a "one China" tenet, having been born and raised in Taiwan with no links to the giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait.

By contrast, at night, thousands of youngsters reclaimed the road outside the Legislative Yuan, where in 2013 many had sat in support of students and activists who had stormed and occupied the building to protest against the ratification of a services trade pact with China.

This time, they were there to support the New Power Party. Founded a year ago, it is expected to win the five seats it is contesting, tapping into not just pro-independence sentiments but also the desire for "social justice" and "uncorrupted" ideals.

Its co-founder Freddy Lim, the lead singer for a heavy metal band, told The Sunday Times: "Taiwan is ready for change."

This article was first published on January 10, 2016.
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