Taiwan vote may rankle China

Saturday's election could give a boost to the party that favors more distance from Beijing.

Lee Teng-hui is cautiously revered in Taipei, and bitterly hated in Beijing. Now, after retiring a year ago in what everyone thought was his last hurrah, he is back.

Mr. Lee, the former president of Taiwan - often called "the father of democracy" here - is not running for office. But the existence of his new party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), with its open call for Taiwan statehood, is yet another provocation to mainland China, something Lee has specialized in for more than a decade.

Taiwan holds national elections tomorrow, Dec. 1. On the surface, the legislative by-year elections appear droll - unlike the riveting vote that swept President Chen Shui-bian into office on an independence platform in Taiwan's first "free and fair" election two years ago.

Yet beneath the surface, Taipei cognoscente see tomorrow's election as crucial. It could realign the underlying political power structure that has held sway over the past 50 years, since the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek escaped to Taiwan after losing the civil war in China.

Circumstances ranging from Sept. 11, to Taiwan's accession to the WTO this month, to a series of shifts here so subtle that they are scarcely visible, have created an unusual dynamic: Even while Taiwan - reeling from a mini-Asian financial crisis - is investing and moving closer economically to mainland China, the basic center of political gravity on the island is moving further away from the union desired by China, experts say.

How far that quiet movement may go will be tested tomorrow, though many of the issues being raised, such as funding of state pensions, are quite local.

"You can't overstate the importance of this election," says Chong-Pin Lin, spokesman for the Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan. "If Lee's party scores even 5 to 8 percent, you have a real widening of the political spectrum. The TSU will form a coalition with the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party], and that allows Chen a stronger position."

Tensions between China and Taiwan, though currently in abeyance, are considered the biggest security risk in East Asia. China regards Taiwan as part of its historic and legal territory, and has missiles lined up across the Taiwan straits as a reminder to Taipei.

Most of the recent political shift is taking place with little public utterance here, and is the result of the very kind of democratic processes Taiwan has ushered in for the past decade.

Tomorrow, if polls are correct, the party that has dominated Taiwan politics for 50 years, the Nationalist Party (KMT) is set to lose, and lose big. The KMT now controls the legislature with 113 of 225 seats. It is considered the party most favored by Beijing since it advocates eventual unification with China. The Democratic People's Party headed by Chen holds the executive. Until last month, Beijing officials were not even allowed to speak Chen's name in public, so great is the antipathy over Chen's tacit "independence" platform.

In Taiwan, divided government has brought 18 months of squabbling and disaffection, even while the island, 50 percent of whose exports are in the information technology sector, has taken an economic nose dive.

But tomorrow the KMT, the party most favored by mainland China, could lose between 25 and 40 seats, according to three different polling analysts - unless attitudes change at the last minute, which they sometimes do in Taiwan.

Lee, by advocating a radical position of "state to state" relations - and by endless campaigning for "Taiwan ruled by Taiwanese," as he shouts animatedly - has given a new shape to Taiwan's politics. He is allowing the DPP and Chen, also pro-independence, to assume a posture of a moderate centist party.

"Beijing has believed until last summer that Chen was a one-term president, weak, and that Taiwan could be worked at through the KMT," says a European diplomat in Beijing. "But the creation of the TSU allows Chen's unstated independence position to be more formalized or institutionalized in mainstream Taiwan politics."

While the KMT seemed to have Chen on the ropes during his first year in office, the braintrust at Taiwan's oldest party is now finding that Taiwanese are no longer continuing to blame Chen for all economic woes. Some polls show voters are starting to point the finger at KMT's opposition politics as a factor. The US decision to sell another round of weapons to Taiwan, and the Bush administration's "lean" toward the island has helped Chen and the DPP. So has a recent series of highly public denouncements by Beijing - most recently an outburst in New York by Chinese Foreign Minister Tang, who called Chen a "liar." Taiwan's WTO membership has marginally bolstered spirits here.

"We will open further to China," says David Hong of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research in Taipei. "At the same time, we will seek a set of relations with regional groupings like the EU and NAFTA."

The differing styles of KMT and TSU hold a key to the changing political landscape of Taiwan.

Along the flat southwest Taiwan coast - a heavily ethnic Taiwanese area famous for its peanuts and infamous for its gangsters - they love Lee. Tall, smiling, and grandfatherly, Lee moves with dignity through an ornate temple. On stage at a rally with 3,000 people, one of many stops on a rigorous schedule, he ignores three eggs tossed by a deputy minister of an opposing party, who is arrested. Instead, he cranks up his familiar anthem, "Taiwan should be ruled by Taiwanese."

The TSU rally - spontaneous, part lecture, part history lesson, part stump speech - is loaded with young families, though it is also in the south where TSU is expected to score better. At a KMT event in an industrial northern city, the crowd is older, mostly retired and bused in. KMT politicians have brief set speeches, stand stiffly on stage, and the crowds, all wearing red caps, shout back on cue, "vote KMT!"

"KMT is concentrating on negative campaigning," says Taipei political scientist Joseph Wu. "The economy is terrible, but the KMT is attacking candidates. It is why many people feel the KMT is working on the wrong track. Surveys show that KMT also has a charisma problem."

Yet Taiwanese voters are also famously fickle. Chen himself, considered in the mid-'90s one of the best mayors Taipei had ever had, was voted out in 1997, despite a commanding lead in the polls.

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