TAIPEI, TAIWAN — AFTER three days of unprecedented public debate, Taiwan's reform-minded President Lee Teng-hui has failed to resolve the island's thorniest constitutional issue: direct election of the president.
On Saturday, the party's Central Committee convened a plenum aimed at cementing policy before impending constitutional revision. But in the face of staunch opposition from hard-liners, Mr. Lee and his supporters were unable to win endorsement of a direct presidential election.
Nationalist (Kuomintang) leaders ended their meeting with a proposal to "decide the method of presidential election after carefully researching public opinion."
The Kuomintang has held power in Taiwan since losing the Chinese mainland to communist armies in 1949. For 38 years it ruled without challenge during the longest uninterrupted period of martial law in modern history.
Substantive reforms began in Taiwan with a return to civilian rule in 1987. Since then authorities have permitted new political parties and more press freedom, and forced the retirement of senior parliamentarians elected in China in the 1940s.
When he assumed power in 1988, Lee was dismissed by many as a figurehead. But after four years in power, he has built support for reform.
"He knows that the only way to make the Kuomintang the long-term ruling party is through reform," notes political columnist Yang Hsian-hong. "Otherwise, he feels it will be difficult to defend the party."
Several weeks ago, Lee began lobbying for a constitutional amendment to allow Taiwan's 13 million voters to choose his successor. Until recently, direct balloting had received scant support inside the Kuomintang. Observers credit the opposition Democratic Progressive Party for popularizing the issue.
"Taiwan has suffered under foreign governments sent from abroad since the Ching Dynasty [1644-1911]," says Chen Yong-shing, an opposition National Assembly member. Decades of autocratic rule have produced a profound distrust of government, he says. Opinion polls show 60 percent to 80 percent of the electorate support a direct presidential contest.
OPPONENTS of the direct contest say it would go against the Nationalists' 1947 Constitution, which prescribes a parliamentary system with a weak president. A party task force has drafted a plan for proxy elections.
In a well-orchestrated onslaught, stalwarts used the weekend plenum to stand strong against direct elections. Former Premier Lee Huan, for example, said direct balloting on Taiwan denied representation to people in China. Others said the system steered dangerously close to formal Taiwan independence from China.
Although intraparty conflict has been evident before, public opinion is a new element in the debate. Opponents of direct elections say "people power"is being manipulated to weaken conservatives. However, reformers say grass-roots opinion, not the party line, is what is relevant.
"The conservatives lean on principles from the past," says Eric Chang, a Kuomintang member in the National Assembly, "while supporters of direct elections rely on the public."
On Friday, Chang and about 400 colleagues will convene to begin reform of a constitution unchanged and little used since 1947. Had the Kuomintang agreed on an agenda for this historic process, say analysts, party discipline would have been high enough to assure passage of their proposals.
After the inconclusive plenum, however, experts say assembly members will behave more independently, making the formula for revision more complex.
"There is a groundswell of support for direct election of the president," says Chen Pi-chao of the Institute for the National Policy Research in Taipei. Without a clear signal from above, assembly members will likely heed public opinion.