Election gains by Taiwan's opposition fail to alter status quo

The opposition to Taiwan's ruling party registered some significant political gains in last weekend's elections. They turned in a respectable perfomance against the government's well-financed party organization, the Kuomintang. But the fragmented opposition, which is not permitted to form alternative political parties, was unable to alter the political status quo on the island despite their attempts to push back the limits on dissent and to challenge the government on fundamental issues.

The results of the hard-fought campaign proved the effectiveness of the Kuomintang's multimedia salesmanship, using television and radio entertainment to promote the party ticket. They also demonstrated a new-found organizational strength -- and allegedly bought more votes than in the past to shore up the party's uncertain electoral support after a year of political scandals.

In Saturday's vote, the Kuomintang retained is dominance in local and provincial government by winning 146 of 191 seats up for election. The aggregate popular vote was split 71 percent to 29 percent between Kuomintang and non-partisan candidates -- about the same as elections in the recent past.

However, the anti-establishment mood in the capital city of Taipei caused the Kuomintang to lose three seats. In Taipei, all 11 opposition candidates won handily. Local residents say voters in the capital were more influenced by political scandals than were voters elsewhere.

Residents in the capital were more aware of the damage to the country's international reputation by the California murder of Chinese-American author Henry Liu, which involved the head of Taiwan's intelligence agency, and the financial disruptions caused by the illegal loans of a government-affiliated bank.

Some 71 percent of the island's 14 million voters turned out, about the same number as the last election, breaking a gradual 10-year decline.

Commenting on the election results Saturday night, the appointed mayor of Taipei, Hsu Shui-teh, said they showed that ``all citizens are more concerned with political affairs.'' He claimed that the elections in the capital had been more open than ever before and there had been no disruptions.

``The result is a typical Chinese happy ending,'' said one experienced political reporter for a leading Taipei newspaper.

``Both sides win, with the Tangwai [opposition] doing well in Taipei and the Kuomintang retaining control in the rest of the country. The Tangwai can still bring pressure on the Kuomintang, but has not threatened its dominance,'' he said.

Irregularities in some parts of island pointed to corrupt practices that have become almost traditional in Taiwan politics. Allegations of vote buying have been widespread, and the practice was more common than in the past, say local journalists. The charges have been made by both sides. However, since opposition candidates are not permitted to form political parties and raise funds individually, they are less able to pay for votes than the government's well-financed oranization. According to one publis hed estimate, some 20 percent of the vote may have been influenced by money or gifts.

During the campaign, some opposition candidates toned down their militant image, according to Hu Fu, professor of political science at National Taiwan University. They were less strident in calling for self-rule, he said, because they now realize how difficult this would be to achieve given the Kuomintang's dilemma on reunification with the mainland and Peking's threat to use force if an independence movement were to gain a foothold here.

``Now [the Kuomintang] are more prepared to compete with the opposition peacefully. . . . They cannot deny the fact that 30 percent of the votes went to the opposition. This has forced the Kuomintang to permit more democracy,'' the professor said.

Many observers have said that the Kuomintang did better than expected in the elections and some are now concerned that its fresh support at the polls might tempt it to dilute efforts at economic reform.

These observers say that if the election results are interpreted as a sign that the government's crisis of confidence is over, there will be little incentive for it to confront entrenched political and bureaucratic interests and push through badly needed reform plans.

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