Houston Community News >> Taiwan Votes for New Parliament

1/12/2008 (BBC)-- Taiwan has begun voting to elect members of parliament in a contest seen as a barometer for the presidential election on 22 March.

Opinion polls suggest the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) will defeat outgoing President Chen Shui-bian's governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Under a new electoral system, voters will elect half as many MPs as before.

Some observers have said the new system may marginalise smaller parties in favour of the DPP and the KMT.

The legislative election will also be held along with two referendums.

The first will ask voters to support legislation to force the KMT to return state assets the DPP says were illegally amassed during the 1950s, while the other, tabled by the KMT, calls for action against corrupt officials.

Polling stations opened at 0800 (0000 GMT) and will close at 1600 (0800 GMT), with results expected a few hours later.

'Sacred ballots'

On Friday, party leaders and their candidates made their final appeals to voters ahead of the election.

President Chen travelled to several parts of the island to urge voters not only to support his party, but also to turn out in large numbers.

The "election is critical because Taiwan can't lose, and democracy and justice must win," he said while visiting the southern city of Kaohsiung.

"The people should treasure the sacred ballots in their hands and vote."

The KMT's candidate in March's presidential election, former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, meanwhile called on the country to vote of change.

"Taiwan's economy and social order are getting worse. It is time for new blood and a different party to take over," he said.

The KMT, which currently has a slim majority in parliament along with its allies, is hoping to win a two-thirds majority in Saturday's election.

New voting system

The two main parties are fighting for control of the newly scaled-down parliament, in which the number of seats has been cut from 225 to 113 in line with reforms adopted in 2005 in order to reduce corruption and improve efficiency.

A new voting system has also been introduced whereby voters will cast ballots for both a party and a particular candidate in their constituency.

Seventy-three seats are being contested by a total of 296 individual candidates representing 12 parties, while 34 seats will be allocated on a party list system. A further six other seats are reserved for ethnic minorities.

According to the head of the Central Election Commission, turnout among the island's 17m eligible voters on Saturday is expected to be higher than the 59.2% achieved in the last legislative election in 2004.

Many analysts, however, have predicted that it may dip to less than 50%. If it does, neither of the referendums can be approved.

Beijing quiet

BBC China analyst Shirong Chen says the two main parties' candidates have notably concentrated on local issues shied away from discussing China in the run-up to the vote, a tactic the Chinese government has also adopted.

The authorities in Beijing have learned from their past misadventures during Taiwanese elections that more verbal warnings and missile tests would backfire to help candidates from the pro-independence DPP, our correspondent says.

This time, China has been focusing on getting countries like the US and France to oppose Taiwan's referendum on joining the UN which will be held alongside the presidential election in March, he adds.

China has also been persuading Taiwan's diplomatic allies to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing, prompting the Taiwanese foreign minister to make a futile trip to Malawi to consolidate bilateral ties.

Nevertheless, our correspondent says Beijing will be anxious to see who wins Saturday's election, because it is being seen by many as a barometer of the public mood ahead of March's vote, when a new president will be chosen to rule the breakaway island for the next four years.

(Contributed by BBC)