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A deal by Taiwan’s two leading opposition candidates to join forces to unseat the ruling Democratic Progressive party has run aground after just three days with both camps saying they should head the ticket.

The Kuomintang, Taiwan’s largest opposition party, and the Taiwan People’s party failed to agree in overnight talks on a formula to determine whether KMT’s Hou Yu-ih or TPP founder Ko Wen-je is the stronger candidate to head the campaign. A decision must be made before next Friday’s presidential election registration deadline.

If the co-operation attempt fails the most likely outcome would be victory for the DPP’s Lai Ching-te, raising the possibility of a greater Chinese aggression against the country. China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has mounted a military intimidation campaign against it, has denounced Lai as a separatist.

The two parties said they would continue talks as soon as possible. “I still hope that we can co-operate for the sake of the people’s hopes for a change in ruling party, for the sake of the safety of Taiwan,” Ko said.

Ko and Hou have both claimed their victory could help keep peace in the Taiwan Strait while continued DPP rule raised the risk of war. The DPP has questioned whether China has a hand in promoting the joint opposition ticket.

The two candidates announced an agreement to run on a joint ticket on Wednesday, but on Saturday the KMT and the TPP presented two different versions of the survey calculation by a panel of experts to collate opinion polls determining which candidate would be likely to win.

In five of nine polls taken into consideration, a ticket with Ko as presidential candidate and Hou as running mate garnered slightly stronger support ratings than the other way round. Analysts said the results indicated that KMT supporters were more willing to vote for Ko but his supporters were sceptical about backing Hou.

However, Ko had offered to concede to Hou if poll results were within the margin of error.

The two sides are now arguing over how to define the margin of error, which polls to include, and whether to measure the two potential combinations against each other or their respective strength in comparison with a Lai-led ticket.

Eric Chu, KMT chair, said these were only “small disagreements which we should iron out as quickly as possible”. But analysts said the attempted alliance could collapse.

“It looks to me like we are headed for a breakdown,” said Nathan Batto, an election expert at Academia Sinica in Taipei.

People familiar with the talks said the best chances for agreement were that former president and KMT elder Ma Ying-jeou, who oversaw Wednesday’s deal, would bring Ko and Hou back to the table and force a compromise.

But political observers said a failed deal could benefit Lai, who has consistently led in the polls with more than 30 per cent.

“If they end up running separately, it will be a lot more difficult for people to vote strategically,” Batto said, referring to voters’ attempts to back the opposition candidate who has a better chance of winning. “That is because there will be so much more acrimony.”

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