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Mayoral elections give few clues about presidential race

The mayoral elections in Taiwan’s two biggest cities ended with no surprise upsets yesterday, but anyone looking for clues to the 2004 presidential race may have been left as baffled as ever.

Both Ma Ying-jeou, mayor of Taipei, and his Kaohsiung counterpart, Frank Hsieh, were re-elected, with the former crushing his rival, and the latter winning by a narrow margin.

The outcomes were much in line with pre-election predictions and opinion polls.

President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wanted badly to wrest back the capital city, which the head of state lost to Ma in the 1998 mayoral poll.

But Chen and the DPP, as well as Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) and its opposition ally, the People First Party (PFP), knew that the incumbent was simply too strong for the underdog challenger, Lee Ying-yuan.

“I have no particular thoughts about Ma’s victory,” remarked KMT Legislator Shyu Jong-shyong, obviously taking the outcome for granted.

The KMT was hardly worried by the Taipei race, because the main battleground actually was Kaohsiung. There were five candidates, but it turned out to be a close two-horse race between Hsieh and his KMT challenger, Huang Chun-ying.

In their pre-election rhetoric, the two major opposition parties had defined the mayoral elections as a no-confidence vote for the DPP.

What they had in mind was a win in Kaohsiung could have shown that voters were now shunning the ruling party because of its continued poor performance, observers said.

It was hoped that the mayoral elections, particularly the one in the southern port city, would serve as an indicator for the 2004 presidential race, and as a test of cooperation between the KMT and PFP.

While Ma garnered some 111,000 more votes than he took last time, his victory could hardly be attributed to a successful consolidation of the so-called “pan blue” camp.

His charisma and his satisfactory report card as mayor should take major credit for his comfortable victory in a city whose voters were relatively less committed to partisan politics.

In Kaohsiung, the “pan blue” camp had been marred by infighting until the very last days ahead of election day, when PFP Chairman James Soong finally made his mind to support Huang.

The opposition’s infighting was partly to be blamed for Huang’s narrow defeat. But the defeat, along with the pre-election dissent, was symptomatic of the unbridgeable gaps in the “pan blue” camp.

The defeat also proved that voters may not be as frustrated with the DPP as the opposition had claimed, as Hsieh still managed to take over half of the ballots.

Observers said Hsieh’s hard-won battle show that the DPP has succeeded in consolidating its support in southern Taiwan.

While the KMT said the “pan blue” consolidation came too late to lift Huang’s campaign, observers predicted that the 2004 presidential poll may see a similar scenario, or even a repeat of the 2000 split.

In the last presidential race, Soong broke with the KMT to mount an independent campaign against Chen and Lien Chan, who was then second in command of both the nation and the KMT.

The KMT split took its toll on both Soong and Lien, with the former losing by a narrow margin, and the latter ending up an embarrassingly distant third.

Some KMT legislators were quoted by the Central News Agency as naming Ma as the “number one” candidate for the next presidential race.

His victory has certainly established him as the superstar of the KMT’s young Turks, but observers said there are many obstacles lying ahead on his road to the 2004 presidential candidacy.

He has to gauge the voters’ response to his quitting the mayorship seat mid-way through his four-year term. And he may not find himself as appealing to voters outside of Taipei.

Soong and Lien, neither of whom is likely to give up what could be their last chance of a comeback, are two major obstacles.

Many observers said Soong is hoping to recruit Ma as his vice presidential partner in what the PFP chief estimates as the ideal form of “pan blue” cooperation.

But the “pan blue” race in Kaohsiung has proved that a “pan blue” cooperation deal for the 2004 race may not come easy, and Ma’s superstar status may add more difficulties to the deal.

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