Taiwanese voters went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new 113-seat Legislature, a contest widely seen as a referendum on President Chen Shui-bian's efforts to carve out a non-Chinese identity for the self-governing island.
The election could end years of political deadlock and stabilise the island's rocky relations with neighbor China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory and has threatened war if Taipei tries to make its de facto independence formal.
Analysts were united in predicting a victory for the main opposition Nationalists, who lean toward eventual unification with China. Even Chen's Democratic Progressive Party has acknowledged its original target of 50 seats seems out of reach.
A big Nationalist victory would provide a substantial boost for Nationalist leader Ma Ying-jeou, who will be running for the party against the DPP's Frank Hsieh in March 22 presidential elections.
Ma has been at the forefront of the Nationalists' legislative campaign, pressing home his message that Chen's emphasis on underscoring Taiwan's separate status from China has hurt the island's economy and ratcheted up tensions in the perennially edgy Taiwan Strait.
About 17 million people were eligible to vote. Participation in recent legislative elections has averaged about 63 per cent.
During Chen's two terms as president, the Nationalists have used a slender legislative majority to block many of his policy initiatives, including the purchase of a multibillion-dollar (euro) package of American weapons.
But that deadlock can only be broken if the same party wins both the legislative and presidential elections – still not a foregone conclusion despite Ma's substantial lead in opinion polls.
The Justice Ministry said it received more than 6,000 complaints of alleged vote-buying, many believed to be filed by candidates in order to smear their opponents.
In a dramatic move on the eve of the election, Nationalist candidate Ho Tsai-feng shaved her hair to proclaim her innocence, denouncing rivals for making false vote-buying accusations against her and allegedly harassing her children in her constituency in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.
After casting his ballot in a Taipei school Saturday, office worker Tsai Ting-yu said he believed the election is crucial for Taiwan's future.
"I voted for a party which can bring us economic prosperity and peace," he said, declining to identify the party he voted for.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Beijing continues to see the island of 23 million people as part of its territory and has threatened to attack if Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent – something it accuses Chen of coming close to doing. (AP)
Taiwanese go to the polls