By J.R. Wu
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's panicked ruling Nationalists party will likely ditch its candidate for January's presidential election this weekend in a desperate move to avoid a trouncing by an opposition it fears could derail warming ties with China.
Party members and observers say the Nationalists, known in Chinese as the Kuomintang (KMT), will use a party congress this weekend to draft in KMT chairman Eric Chu to replace Hung Hsiu-chu, a former schoolteacher whose campaign has been riddled with gaffes and political attacks.
Taiwan's pro-China KMT is floundering with 13 weeks left before Taiwanese voters choose a new president and a new legislature.
Allegations emerged this week that Hung was offered money by her party to stand down, a claim she has vehemently denied.
Many observers therefore see Saturday's extraordinary party congress – the same gathering that approved Hung's candidacy as the sole contender in July – as a means to now dump her under the guise of party rules.
"The time has come to save the KMT from collapse and ensure its survival," Chu said at the party's central standing meeting this week, bowing deeply and apologizing twice.
"We must re-team and win the support of the people."
Chu has not stated clearly that he will run in Hung's place.
However, long-time KMT lawmaker Lin Yu-fang told party grandees last month that "PhD candidates will be writing their dissertations on the defeat of the KMT" if the slide wasn't arrested soon.
In contrast, buoyant opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen will open her national campaign headquarters on Sunday.
She has toured the United States and Japan, key links for Taiwan in regional trade and security, in defiance of anger from China, which sees the DPP as favoring independence for Taiwan.
Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province to be taken back by force if necessary, particularly if it makes moves toward independence. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists in the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Hung has had to rebuff a series of attacks since she began campaigning, including claims that her university business degree was fake. Elsewhere at times she has appeared inexperienced and arrogant.
Her initial stance on cross-strait relations appeared to promote unification with China, causing others in the Nationalists to back away from her.
Hung is lagging behind Tsai in opinion polls by more than 20 points and has had to deny constant rumors she would quit.
The Nationalists now fear they won't win enough legislative seats in the 113-seat parliament to have a significant voice in the lawmaking agenda if they don't dump Hung, making worse the party's poor showing in local polls last year.
Even those on Hung's own campaign team say enough is enough.
"The KMT is beyond cure," said Sun Ting-long, who has known Hung for three decades and works in her campaign office.
He acknowledged that Hung did not prepare enough to run for president but saw a bigger problem within the KMT, where factional infighting has deepened divides in an already weakened party.
"Isn't this a joke? A big party has become like this?" Sun said.
(Editing by Paul Tait)