TAIPEI - Six candidates have garnered enough support to qualify for the race to lead Taiwan's embattled Kuomintang (KMT), in what is believed to be one of the most hotly contested leadership elections in the party's history.
The new party chief will have the difficult task of rebuilding the KMT, more than a year after it lost to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in both the presidential and legislative elections.
The six in the running are: former Taiwan vice-president Wu Den-yih, 69; incumbent KMT chair Hung Hsiu-chu, 69; her two deputies Hau Lung-bin, 64, and Steve Chan, 68; former legislator Pan Wei-kang, 59; and businessman Han Kuo-yu, 59.
Campaigning for the May 20 poll kicked into higher gear after the six were declared eligible candidates yesterday, having met the requirement of obtaining the signatures of more than 3 per cent of some 440,000 eligible KMT members.
Of the six, Mr Wu collected the most signatures - 221,891.
National Taiwan University political scientist Wang Yeh-lih said the winner would be one with the "charisma and strong grassroots network across Taiwan to mobilise supporters to come out to vote".
Under the rules, any candidate who wins more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round will be elected KMT chairman. Otherwise, the two with the most first-round votes will compete in a run-off.
The candidate with the most votes in the second round will become the new party leader, serving a four-year term.
Despite the crowded field, the election is likely to be a three-horse race. Mr Wu, a seasoned politician, Ms Hung, the party's first female leader, and Mr Hau, former Taipei city mayor, are seen as leading contenders.
In a recent poll of nearly 700 voting KMT members, 53 per cent said they expect Mr Wu to win, followed by Ms Hung with 16 per cent and Mr Hau with 8 per cent.
At a military veterans forum in Taitung in eastern Taiwan yesterday, Ms Hung said she was happy that "more people are willing to step forward to shoulder the burden (of leading the party)".
The next KMT chief will face the challenge of uniting and rebuilding a party plagued by infighting and financial woes after its assets were frozen in a probe into its allegedly ill-gotten assets.
The pro-Beijing party is also seen as being out of touch with the Taiwan public, who are wary of closer ties with China as most prefer the status quo of de facto independence.
Political scientist Liao Da-chi at National Sun Yat-sen University said that, besides having to rally the young and disillusioned supporters, the new KMT leader will have the tough job of "bringing together all the different camps that were divided by this leadership election".
The crucial test is whether the new leader can rally the party together to pick up seats in next year's mayoral and councillor elections, or even dislodge President Tsai Ing-wen from power in the 2020 presidential elections, said Professor Liao.
Ms Tsai's ruling DPP holds four of the six cities up for grabs next year, including the former KMT stronghold of Taichung in central Taiwan. The KMT holds the New Taipei seat while independent Ko Wen-je is the incumbent mayor in Taipei.
Prof Liao said: "There will no honeymoon period as the new leader will have to quickly implement reforms, and get people to fire up the election machinery."