The career paths of the two presidential candidates reflect that pattern.
His opponent, KMT candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, served two terms as Taipei city mayor, the island’s capital in the north.
Yet legislative elections in January overturned the political truism: bringing the KMT a landslide win and large gains in the DPP’s southern heartland.
Former DPP voters like 47 year-old Lee Chen-her, who runs a small dried food business, have switched allegiances. “It’s time for a change”, he told me. “I’m getting desperate.
“The economy is bad, especially for small businesses like mine. Things are getting worse and worse.”
Across town, 44 year-old Lee Zhen-hua now answers the telephone himself in his car repair shop – having cut staff to save costs. He once voted DPP – but says he will vote for the KMT’s candidate, Ma Ying-jeou.
“I feel very disappointed. People feel no hope. I think the KMT can bring the people a brighter future.
“During the past few years, I can see in South Korea and even India, their GDP are higher than in Taiwan..I can’t accept this. I want a government that will give the people a better life.”
This, in a city in which Frank Hsieh should feel confident of support. He was narrowly elected mayor in 1998 by the slimmest margin. But when he left office in 2005, he had the highest approval rating of any city or county head.
He still enjoys strong personal support among locals who credit him with helping to transform Kaohsiung’s image, cleaning up a dirty industrial port city, including the poetically-named but formerly heavily polluted Love River; improving public transport with the construction of a mass rapid transport system; and making the city greener and more arts-friendly.
“I support the DPP stand…they emphasize Taiwan first, not China first. That’s the big difference between Frank Hsieh and Ma Ying-jeou”, Hsieh supporter, Joshua Su said at a campaign rally in Fongshan, Kaohsiung County.
He accused Mr. Ma of being indecisive and poor at crisis management.
“Mr Hsieh is a better leader. Ma Ying-Jeou – he doesn’t do anything, commit to anything”, he said. “He says something, but changes it later on. His character cannot be trusted.”
Frank Hsieh was a founder member of the Democratic Progressive Party who also proposed its name and served as a former party chairman. He’s been closely associated with key events during Taiwan’s democratization, and served as a former premier and legislator.
But he’s had setbacks in his political career. One of the most serious was when he ran as deputy presidential candidate in 1996, and was accused of taking inappropriate political donations from a sect leader, who was later charged with fraud.
The scandal forced Mr. Hsieh temporarily withdrew from the political scene.
He’s a skilful debater; a pragmatist. Like his KMT opponent, Mr. Hsieh says he favours better ties with China, including closer economic links. Yet the two men differ over the pace and degree. Mr. Hsieh has strongly attacked his opponent’s plan to push for an economic “common market” with China, warning it would sell-out Taiwan’s interests and lead to many job losses.
Frank Hsieh campaigning in Kaohsiung
During the campaign, Mr. Hsieh has been careful to distance himself from President Chen – who takes a much more confrontational approach towards China, but whose popularity has plummeted amid a series of corruption scandals, a sluggish economy, tense relations with China as well as strained links with the island’s main ally, the US.
“Mr Hsieh is a leader of great vision, a man of strong will and leadership. He’s very good at communicating with his whole team, so they can work towards a common goal” said Kaohsiung legislator, Kuang Bi-Ling, who is regarded as close to Mr. Hsieh.
“He has better governance and showed better leadership [than Ma] when he was faced with challenges. He stands for the protection of the Taiwan people’s benefits.
“As a Buddhist, he understands life has its ups and downs.. When he is in a bad times, he knows the good times will come. It never stops him from continuing to push ahead with his dream”.
But even his most ardent supporters concede Hsieh is facing a tough battle against his opponent Ma Ying-Jeou, who has been leading in opinion polls.
Telegenic Mr. Ma is Harvard-educated, fluent in English, and a former justice minister with a reputation for integrity. He was groomed for a political career from an early age. Ma Ying-jeou, campaigning in Kaohsiung
He’s particularly popular with women and the young. Once nicknamed “non-stick” or “Mr Teflon”, for his efforts in fighting corruption, his image is a little less shiny since standing trial – though he was eventually cleared – on allegations of misusing a special allowance fund while Taipei city mayor.
“He’s an honest person; generous; energetic”, said Huang Chung-Ying, who has known Ma for more than 20 years and helps run his campaign headquarters in Kaohsiung city.
“His executive ability is very good. He’s very detail-oriented. He knows how to move Taiwan to a better tomorrow”. The tightly-contested election race has often focused less on policy and more on personal attacks, with the two camps accusing each other of negative campaigning and smear tactics.
Liao Dachi, at the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University, believes that is because the two candidates have both shifted to very similar centrist positions – and the campaign has become one more about personality.
“They are two different kinds of people. And their background can also tell their differences”, she said. "Ma Ying-jeou comes from a middle-class, stable life. He knows his goal; his father tried to nurture him as a leader.
“But Frank Hsieh comes from a relatively poor family. His political career is not as successful. So he knows how to fight, to understand people’s feelings; he knows human nature so well, because he was really on the bottom ..he came from the grass roots.”
Opinion polls in Taiwan have never been very reliable; and Frank Hsieh, while not considered the frontrunner, is an accomplished campaigner. His supporters say he could yet pull off a dramatic election upset, as he’s done in the past.