Taiwan's nuclear fight is all about votes

Talks began, then ended, this week on resuming construction of a power plant on hold since October.

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When President Chen Shui-bian likened the movie "The Perfect Storm" to Taiwan's heated debate over the construction of a nuclear power plant, he wasn't showing off a knack for hyperbole.

For more than three months, the government has been entangled in a vicious battle that ostensibly centers on the construction of the island's fourth nuclear power plant - a US$5.5 billion, 2,700 megawatt plant that is one-third finished.

But as the political fight wages on, it has become apparent that it is really not about electrical, but electoral, needs.

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Mr. Chen's government and the opposition-led legislature tried to enter negotiations last week, but by Tuesday they had broken down. An opposition alliance ordered the government again to first resume construction, saying that it would not negotiate until work resumed.

Political analysts say that the only sign of clear skies on the horizon are legislative elections at year's end, which could level the now uneven political playing field.

Calculations are based on hopes for gaining more seats, not resolving the crisis, says Hsu Szu-chien, a professor of comparative politics at National Chengchi University. "Each side is betting on that big game - this has more to do with politics than the issue itself."

The Kuomintang (KMT), which lost to Chen in last year's presidential elections, ending more than 50 years of one-party rule, has long argued that without the plant, Taiwan's economy will collapse. It recently added that without the plant, the semiconductor industry would see more blackouts than ever. Others claim that companies have reportedly begun moving operations to China because of the fight.

Chen's government sees things differently. It says that independent power producers will make up for at least 93 percent of the plant's output. It also argues that since Taiwan is already struggling to find a place to bury nuclear waste, a fourth plant is out of the question. The government has assured the public that for the next seven years, Taiwan will not lack any electrical power. While neighbors like Japan and China plan to continue building nuclear power plants, Taiwan has begun looking more earnestly into alternative energy.

Such polar views have made it difficult for either side to give any ground. The KMT holds a majority in the legislature, which is a major obstacle here, because the current Constitution does not state clearly whether the government is a functioning parliamentary or presidential system. Not only that, but Chen was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote last March.

The all-out political war began when the government made its first major policy decision to halt construction of the power plant.

Lawmakers, especially the KMT's, were furious, mounting a signature drive to recall the president. Premier Chang Chun-hsiung, who announced the plant cancellation, was labeled persona non grata and barred from the legislature. It wasn't until late January, when Taiwan's Council of Grand Justices ordered both sides to negotiate, that there was some hope the debate would be resolved.

But "we are still going in circles," says Philip Yang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. Hsu, the political scientist, agrees, saying that Taiwan is still learning how to "see compromise as a necessary part of democracy." He adds: "In politics, you have to compromise, but that's not part of Chinese culture. It's not seen as a good thing."

Eric Lin, an independent lawmaker's assistant, says that "in the end, the public and democracy have to pay the price for such instability."

Such a fight was bound to happen sooner or later. Chen's antinuclear DPP has long been opposed to the plant, while the KMT has done everything in its power to make sure the project is completed, in some cases disregarding public opinion. Nearly two weeks ago, protests against the plant outside of the legislature included one man who set himself aflame.

Says Joseph Wu, a professor at National Chengchi University, "What lies ahead is a long period of confrontation."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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