TAIPEI — TAIWAN'S bid for democracy faces a historic test as President Lee Teng-hui attempts to push through an ambitious program for overhauling the political system. Mr. Lee is convinced that following the eruption of large pro- democracy protests in the capital Taipei last spring, sweeping political reforms, possibly including direct presidential elections, are needed to legitimize his government, analysts say.
``Lee wants to appeal to the general public for a mandate,'' says Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Journalist, Taiwan's leading political magazine.
But for the controversial plan to succeed, the highly popular president must strike a compromise between political extremes: a conservative old-guard within his ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and student demonstrators and opposition legislators who demand an even faster pace of democratization.
Lee, Taiwan's first native-born leader, must also mediate between KMT hard-liners who advocate Taiwan's reunification with mainland China and radical supporters of independence for the island.
Lee's high-speed redesign of Taiwan's intricate authoritarian system presents risks. The government of Taiwan has been left basically intact since Gen. Chiang Kai-shek fled China's communist-held mainland and imposed strong-man rule on the island in 1948.
``These debates have been going on for 40 years and we want to solve them in a couple of months; that's where the difficulties lie,'' says Ma Ying-jeou, a KMT Central Committee member in charge of constitutional reform.
Although specific changes are still hotly disputed inside and outside the ruling party, a KMT task force for constitutional reform has outlined the following, two-stage agenda:
In the first phase, the president will end by May 31 the state of emergency imposed in 1948 that grants the president broad powers to override constitutional guarantees in the interest of national security.
``After the termination of the period of emergency, people in this country will enjoy the rights and obligations provided in the Constitution,'' says KMT spokesman James C.Y. Chu.
The president will retain some emergency powers during the constitutional reform process ``to keep the country going,'' but public pressure for democratic rule is so strong that ``there's no way he could abuse them,'' Mr. Chu says.
National Assembly to retire
Lifting the state of emergency will also abolish the legal grounds for freezing in office members of the National Assembly, a 639-strong body composed mainly of elderly, China-born legislators elected on the mainland before 1949.
In the second phase of the KMT plan, the National Assembly will hold elections by Dec. 31, 1991, when the Supreme Court has ruled that all China-elected members must retire. The newly elected assembly will then revise the Constitution, completing its work by the middle of next year.
Disagreements rage, however, over several critical aspects of the emerging political system - namely the powers of the president and the premier, and whether the president should be elected directly.
To assuage KMT conservatives, the party has called for revising the Constitution through amendments and leaving the original articles intact. The National Assembly would continue to elect the president indirectly, perhaps acting as a US-style electoral college.
KMT hard-liners want to retain the National Assembly to legitimize the party's claim to sovereignty over all of China, including not only Taiwan's 20 million people but the 1.1 billion Chinese on the mainland.
Under the KMT plan, from 25 percent to 50 percent of new National Assembly members will be appointed as mainland representatives by the KMT and other parties. The seats will be allocated according to the percentage of the vote each party receives.
``The assembly must legitimize the government as the government of all China,'' says government spokesman Shaw Yu-ming. ``We don't want to become the Republic of Taiwan.''
But the plan could backfire for Lee's ruling party, since the public, the opposition's leading Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the KMT's own younger reformers overwhelmingly favor a direct presidential poll.
Direct elections ``are a good way of demonstrating popular wishes,'' says Mr. Ma, a KMT moderate. ``Some people in the party say `why not?' But they would signify the death declaration for the National Assembly, wiping out one whole sector of the government.''
Opposition to run hard
Leaders of the opposition DPP say the party plans to campaign hard during the upcoming National Assembly elections to win more than a quarter of the seats. If successful, the party could play a significant role in amending the Constitution, which requires a three-quarters majority.
``If we have sufficient seats we will make the presidential elections direct,'' says DPP Chairman Huang Hsin-chieh. The DPP believes it would stand a better chance of winning a direct election.
The next presidential election is scheduled for 1996.