After months of debate within the governing party, Taiwan appears to be moving irreversibly toward a more pluralistic political system. In legislative elections scheduled for Dec. 6, the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) is now expected to compete with an organized opposition party for the first time in its 38-year rule.
The elections are also expected to be the first held without the constraints of martial law, which has been in effect on Taiwan since the KMT retreated there from the mainland in 1949.
The KMT was stunned, according to local analysts, when a group of 135 opposition leaders declared the formation of the island's first indigenous political party in late September. But KMT officials have since indicated that the Democratic Progress Party will be tolerated, providing it avoids a number of longstanding local political taboos.
In mid-October, the KMT approved a proposal that would replace martial law -- which prohibits alternative political parties -- with what it calls ``national security legislation,'' which has not yet been drafted.
Although the new regulations are widely expected to be almost as stringent as those being replaced, the move is seen as a significant indication of the island's political direction.
These developments are the first tangible results of a political-reform campaign launched by President Chiang Ching-kuo at a meeting of senior party officials in late March. Many analysts believe they signal a victory by Mr. Chiang over KMT conservatives who have vigorously opposed the President's plans to move cautiously toward democracy.
Chiang has long sought to insure Taiwan's future stability by attracting the support of the Taiwanese population, which accounts for 85 percent of Taiwan's 19 million residents.
``This has to be seen as a success for the moderates,'' said one foreign observer in Taipei, adding: ``Otherwise there would have been arrests, jailings, and prosecutions by now.''
At the same time, recent statements suggest that the party remains divided on the issue.
KMT leaders continue to refer to the new opposition group routinely as ``the so-called party.'' There are also indications that some party members have laid the groundwork for legal action against the Democratic Progressives.
The President has indicated that the opposition, which until now has consisted only of loosely organized factions, will have to declare an anticommunist ideology and support for the Constitution before it is formally accepted.
The decision to form a new party followed nearly two weeks of demonstrations that local observers say were the largest in the island's history. The protests were sparked by the sentencing of a leading opposition figure on charges of libel and election irregularities.
These demonstrations culminated on Sept. 14, when 7,000-10,000, according to independent estimates, gathered near National Taiwan University and marched down one of Taiwan's principal thoroughfares. Security forces did not intervene, witnesses said, in what many called an unprecedented display of restraint.
At the time, opposition leaders said the event marked a turning point in the movement's efforts to develop a greater degree of political unity.
``This is a first for us,'' said Antonio Chiang, editor of The Eighties, an antigovernment monthly. ``It's a breakthrough in our challenge to martial law.''
The protests also disrupted sporadic talks between the opposition and the KMT that are not expected to resume at least until after the December elections.
Opposition sources say the new party now plans to hold its first party congress prior to the start of campaigning for the December elections on Nov. 20. Among other things, the group is expected to issue a political platform and appoint its leadership.
It has already indicated that it will not forge links with US-based groups calling for Taiwan's independence. The KMT's claim to rule all of China is a cornerstone of Nationalist Chinese ideology.
Nonetheless, it remains unclear just what status the KMT will permit the new group to claim. Some local observers indicate that the ruling party may insist that it register only as a civic organization, implying a reduced political role.
``There is still a lot of indecision within the KMT,'' a foreign analyst said. ``They haven't yet made up their minds how to deal with this situation -- even though there doesn't seem to be any turning back.''