TAIPEI, Taiwan - Thousands of Taiwanese opposition supporters rallied Saturday in the capital, donating money from tiny piggy banks to support the campaign to unseat President Ma Ying-jeou in the unexpectedly close election.

Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party has come from behind and is now running neck and neck against Ma ahead of the Jan. 14 polls.

Tsai's party uses piggy banks as a campaign theme dubbed "Three Little Pigs." The idea was to band together thousands of donations from workers and farmers to overcome what her party calls the "big bad wolf" of Taiwanese corporate power and defeat Ma.

"We count on the power of the piggies to battle a society of injustice that still has the remnants of an authoritarian government," Tsai told supporters who cheered her by holding up their piggy banks.

At the rally at a boulevard outside the presidential office building, many supporters complained about the widening gap between the rich and poor. They chanted, "Let's vote Tsai Ing-wen to be Taiwan's first female president."

Taiwan is selecting its fifth popularly elected president in a poll that coincides with legislative elections.

The close race has alarmed many Taiwanese business leaders, who until recently had been almost assured of a Ma victory to plot a stable course for economic recovery.

Since taking office 3 1/2 years ago, the 61-year-old Ma has won plaudits for his signature China engagement policy that has brought tensions across the Taiwan Strait to the lowest point since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

Ma has kept Taiwan's jobless at a relatively low 4.3 per cent. But he has been widely criticized for his perceived inability to address the interests of blue-collar workers, farmers and others less well-off, leading to worsening income equality.

But under Ma's initiative, Taiwan and China launched direct flights and signed a landmark trade deal so the island's mainstay high-tech industries could take advantage of China's vast market.

That effort has won him wide business backing.

Terry Gou, chairman of Taiwan's Foxconn Technology Group, openly backed Ma early this month. At the groundbreaking of a new venture in southern Taiwan, he called the president "an experienced, outstanding helmsman" whose leadership he said would be essential to navigate Taiwan through the current global economic uncertainties.

Yan Kaitai, CEO of Yulon Motor Group, warned this week that if Ma should fail, Taiwan could follow the steep economic decline of the Philippines, the island's neighbour which was among Asia's richest countries until the 1960s.

Foxconn and Yulon are among thousands of Taiwanese companies with huge business interests in China.

Tsai has voiced skepticism over Ma's China engagement policy, saying it could push the self-ruled island toward eventual unification, a goal cherished by China. Her refusal to formally denounce her party's pro-independence stance has also worried China.

At the Saturday rally, college student Lin Wan-yin said she feared that Ma is leaning too close to China.

"Tsai Ing-wen is cautious and rational enough not to provoke China," Lin said. "She will better respect Taiwanese' wish to maintain our self-governance."