TAIPEI - Taiwan prosecutors said on Wednesday (Oct 14) they are investigating claims that the embattled ruling Kuomintang (KMT) tried to bribe unpopular presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu to step down.
It is the latest setback for the KMT, which is expected to lose the presidential election in January.
The party is in disarray after endorsing pro-China Hung in July to run for the leadership despite her conservative views that fly in the face of public sentiment as fears grow over Beijing's influence on the island.
Known as "xiao-la-jiao" or "little hot pepper" for her straight-talking style, she is trailing behind Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen in the polls, but has refused to heed calls to stand aside.
A legislator from the opposition DPP filed a complaint to prosecutors last week, alleging that KMT chairman Eric Chu had offered Ms Hung benefits to persuade her to quit the presidential race, violating election laws.
The complaint filed by Ms Chen Ting-fei says Mr Chu had asked Ms Hung to step down on three separate occasions, citing media reports.
Mr Chu violated Article 84 of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Election and Recall Act by "offering bribes or other undue benefits" to persuade Ms Hung to abandon her campaign, according to a copy of the complaint. No original evidence was given by Ms Chen.
Unsourced local media reports have said Ms Hung demanded NT$500 million (S$21 million) to step down as candidate.
"We've received the case and should open the investigation today," Mr Kuo Wen-tung, director of the Supreme Prosecutors Office's special investigation division, said on Wednesday.
"If during the course of investigation we need to summon Chu, we will do so," Mr Kuo said.
The KMT and Ms Hung have both denied that any bribes changed hands. Ms Hung has also denied demanding money to end her campaign.
The KMT suffered its worst-ever defeat in local elections last year, with its Beijing-friendly policy a key factor.
Party big hitters hung back from the presidential nomination in the face of a likely loss, leaving wildcard Ms Hung to take the reins.
The KMT has called an emergency congress on Saturday to vote on whether Ms Hung should be replaced. Mr Chu, Mayor of New Taipei City, is expected to be nominated instead.
"This is a critical moment of survival or death for the KMT," he said at a party meeting on Wednesday.
Taiwan split from China in 1949 after a civil war and is self-ruling, but Beijing sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary.
The KMT espouses a "one China, different interpretation" model, tacitly agreed with Beijing and known as the "1992 consensus", which leaves Taiwan to assert its sovereignty.
Ms Hung, however, has historically taken a pro-unification stance.