After comeback, Taiwan reformer nudges ruling party toward democracy

Like other liberals in Taiwan, Lee Huan has suffered for promoting democracy, not as the firebrand of an illicit opposition but as a ruling party leader. Mr. Lee was ousted from a top post in the ruling Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) in 1977 for ties to an opposition politician whose supporters rioted against alleged vote manipulation by the KMT. Banished to a southern port, Lee headed a university for seven years.

Since his comeback and appointment as KMT secretary-general in July, Lee has emerged as the chief implementer of liberal change. He is coaxing the ruling party away from autocracy, easing restrictions on political and civil freedoms. A decade after Lee's expulsion, party policy has caught up with his progressive convictions and made Taiwan one of the world's most peaceful examples of an authoritarian regime evolving toward democracy.

The charismatic Lee learned to balance his liberal impulses with the concerns of party conservatives. But this political tightrope act is growing more precarious.

Lee is the only strong reformer among the half-dozen presidential aides who would succeed 77-year-old President Chiang Ching-kuo, according to Taiwan legislators and Western political observers.

Although he will probably emerge as the first among equals when the President passes from the political scene, Lee does not wield sufficient influence to advance the reforms at the current pace, they said.

``If Chiang Ching-kuo dies, reform will slow down very much - it won't stop but it will slow,'' said KMT legislator Chu-wen.

The future of nonviolent reform depends largely on whether Lee can attain two seemingly conflicting goals, said observers on condition they not be identified: He must build a solid base of power to ensure his smooth ascent to the top and his ability to promote reform. But he must also help the President diffuse party power, tempering Taiwan's 40-year-old tradition of strongman rule. Such efforts to make the party democratic have already dismantled some of the authoritarian structures that would facilitate his rise to power.

Formidable opponents within the KMT make Lee's task even more daunting. They resent the lifting of martial law and the sanctioning of small but outspoken opposition parties.

Taiwan's powerful military leaders and veteran party members who were born on mainland China believe reform threatens the party's longstanding goal of quelling what they call the ``communist rebellion'' and recovering China.

Many members of parliament, who were elected in China in 1947, oppose Lee's challenge to the claim they still represent their mainland districts. They seek to block a proposal to replace many current lawmakers with candidates from Taiwan.

Lee could skirt these senior rivals by appealing to his strong grass-roots party support, the Western observers said.

Before his 1977 ouster, Lee nurtured broad ties with the lower levels of the ruling party. He headed the party's cadre school, its recruiting network, and its nominating committee. These posts helped him win the fidelity of many rising party leaders, legislators and observers said.

Lee plans to elevate many of his faithful followers with a scheme to ``democratize'' the party. In return, these younger leaders will energize the party with the fresh ideas necessary to thwart the opposition, said party legislator Huang, considered one of the handful of liberal ruling party lawmakers.

In an attempt to promote collective rule at the top, the President and Lee have dispensed power throughout the 30-member central standing committee. Six subcommittees, coordinated by party headquarters and supervised by Lee, now make policy and hand up decisions to the full committee for approval.

The empowerment of the committee has upstaged the half-dozen members of the President's inner circle, transferring to the committee powers formerly centered in the President's office political observers said.

The secretary-general of the Presidential palace, Shen Chang-huan, has been most outspoken in denouncing Lee for giving more power to the committee.

But Lee has proven astute when facing such conservative opponents. He lay low after his political expulsion in 1977, yielding his role as Chiang's protege and establishing National Sun Yat-sen University. Financial scandals subsequently discredited many of the President's senior advisers, clearing the way for Lee's return as education minister in 1984.

Now, Lee has left that period of political discretion behind, although he still shies from a high public profile and declines press interviews.

``Lee must feel he has to press reform of the party and the entire political system hard while he has the full power and prestige of the President behind him,'' said a Western political observer speaking on condition he not be identified further.

Without a dedicated liberal reformer like Lee leading the KMT, the opposition and growing numbers of activist citizens would force the ruling party to grant greater freedoms, according to the political observers.

Another Western political analyst said, ``either the Kuomintang will continue to implement reform in a gradual, measured, and credible way, or the public will make it follow through on this unstoppable process - peacefully or otherwise.''

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