Sat, Oct 22, 2011 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Greater Taichung seen as key area in upcoming polls

BATTLE:As parties vie for votes in the pivotal ‘swing state,’ they also face the challenge of persuading apathetic voters to turn up on the day of the poll

By James Pomfret  /  Reuters, with Staff Writer

Taiwan’s semi-rural central plains, dotted with rice paddies and brightly colored temples, is the battleground in a presidential poll that will set the tone of the nation’s prickly relations with China for the next four years.

In the same way that Ohio is a vital swing state in US presidential polls, Greater Taichung and a cluster of sleepy counties around it is a must-win region in January’s presidential and legislative elections.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is vying for a second term, but faces a tough challenge from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Having nearly taken Taichung from the KMT in last year’s special municipal mayoral elections, the DPP sees the region as crucial for its hopes of winning back power.

“We can overcome all difficulties,” Tsai told her cheering supporters at a recent rally in Changhua City, just to the west of Taichung.

Beijing sees Taiwan, with its deep seam of nationalism and a thriving democracy, as a breakaway province to be reunited with China, by force if necessary.

DPP supporters cherish their nation’s independence.

“We don’t need China,” said 61-year-old farmer Huang Yan-yan amid cries for an independent Taiwan at the rally of about 4,000 people, many blasting on hooters and waving flags. “Taiwan is different from China. We Taiwanese have good hearts, but the Chinese are aggressive.”

Beijing sees its old nemesis, Ma’s KMT, which fled to Taiwan from China in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, as a safer bet because of the economic rapprochement that Ma has championed.

Beijing views Tsai, a scholarly 55-year-old with a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics, with deep suspicion, even though she has moved her once staunchly pro-independence party toward a more pragmatic stand.

Like most recent presidential elections, a tight race is expected.

Voters are broadly split by an axis through the center of the nation with the DPP, which -emphasizes the nation’s uniqueness and independence, strong in the south. In the north, the KMT is the main force.

Residents of Taichung usually back the KMT, while the inhabitants of the rural counties around it usually vote DPP. In the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, Taichung and neighboring Changhua and Yunlin counties switched sides and both parties see the area as key for making gains this time.

“If the DPP can win in Changhua, then Tsai Ing-wen can win in the whole country,” DPP legislative candidate Charles Chiang (江昭儀) shouted from the rally stage packed with supporters waving yellow banners.

“This is a battle more crucial than the first one,” Greater -Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) of the KMT said at his headquarters, referring to Ma’s 2008 victory.

“The country’s economy is recovering rapidly, international ties are also being restored, the mainland relationship is also at a pivotal juncture,” he said. “If we’re not elected it’s not square one we’re back to, it’s ground zero ... especially with regard to the peace in the Taiwan Strait.”

A recent National Chengchi University survey of 22,000 people found 52.8 percent back Ma versus 47.1 percent for Tsai.

As underdog, Tsai has been working tirelessly to raise her profile and get an early start in the campaign with an around-the-nation tour from her ancestral village in the south up into KMT heartlands in the north.

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