Taiwan opposition struggles for unity to challenge government. But with new freedom to operate, party faces growing factionalism

Human rights lawyer Yao Chia-wen emerged from prison last January after serving seven years for criticizing political repression by Taiwan's authoritarian regime. Today, Mr. Yao heads the island's largest opposition party, the first to challenge the absolute power of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, or KMT) since Gen. Chiang Kai-shek took over in 1949. The dramatic turnabout in Yao's fortunes parallels the rise of his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), founded with 1,000 members in September 1986 in violation of a martial-law ban. The tiny party took 25 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections against the 2.3-million-strong KMT in December 1986, despite tight government restrictions on the DPP campaign.

In July, President Chiang Ching-kuo met opposition demands to lift martial law, ending the threat of trial by military court for many opposition activities and freeing more political prisoners like Yao. This month, Taiwan's parliament, the Legislative Yuan, is expected to pass an amendment that will legalize opposition parties for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Although this broad easing of political controls gives the DPP an unprecedented opportunity to contend with the KMT, it also intensifies the factionalism that has weakened the loosely grouped coalition since its formation. Divided, the opposition would have little chance of effectively breaking the KMT's near monopoly of power.

``The KMT leaders had a big change of heart,'' according to Chang Chun-hong, one of the opposition's leading intellectuals. ``Before, they believed a multi-party system would threaten their influence. Now they hope a lot of new parties will disperse the DPP's strength. So they aren't going to restrict the formation of new parties.''

As newly elected chairman of the now 8,000-member DPP, Yao knows his party's success will depend on how well he can quell opposition infighting and prevent splits between the main factions that compose the DPP.

``This is not a time to argue about our detailed policies,'' he said. ``Taiwanese need a powerful organization to fight against the KMT. No one who concentrates only on specific problems can survive.''

One major force dividing the opposition stems from Taiwan's spectacular economic success of the 1970s and '80s. Prosperity has spurred the development of an increasingly complex and pluralistic society. Led by a well-educated middle class that now constitutes more than half the island's population, the 19.7 million people of Taiwan are seeking political representation to match their diverse interests.

Faced with the more varied voter profile, Yao favors a united front strategy, which attempts to attract the broadest possible spectrum of supporters with a general pro-democracy, antigovernment platform. Other DPP leaders, however, are increasingly targeting specific constituencies.

In a blow to DPP's efforts to maintain solidarity, one of its 13 members with seats on Taiwan's 315-member parliament left the DPP this month to help lead a new labor party. The party, formed in November by a group of leftist intellectuals and labor organizers, seeks to win support from Taiwan's more than 5 million workers. A goal of the new 300-member party is to expand the power of labor unions in Taiwan, where about 18 percent of workers are unionized, government statistics say.

In addition, a small group of DPP activists has hinted that it may form a party modeled after West Germany's Greens. The party would represent the growing number of people, especially farmers, who seek to promote environmental protection.

Another major divisive force is the long-standing schism between the supporters of Taiwan independence and those who seek reunification with mainland China.

Both the governments in Taipei and Peking have claimed to be the legitimate rulers of all China, including Taiwan, and oppose the division of Taiwan from the mainland.

Two other major opposition factions have so far sought compromise on the issue, upholding the official DPP platform of ``self determination,'' whereby Taiwan's voters will resolve the island's future status.

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