Taiwan's fledgling opposition party is off to a shaky start

``The reputation of the Democratic Progressive Party is not very good. It appears they don't abide by the law,'' said Gong Shu-xian, a Taipei factory worker. Only two months old, the first new political party in Taiwan in 40 years already has an image problem that could cost it seats in tomorrow's elections.

The conduct of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has become a major issue in the campaign this week, shifting attention away from other issues, such as the environment, the privatization of state enterprises, and concern about avoiding US retaliation for Taiwan's trade protection policies.

Party members say the problems began last weekend during a political demonstration that turned violent. Several hundred sympathizers gathered at the Taipei airport to greet an exiled dissident leader, Hsu Hsin-liang, who hoped to reenter the country after seven years of exile in the United States.

Mr. Hsu has been charged with sedition, and he was not allowed on a flight to Taipei from Japan because he lacked valid travel documents. He tried again from Manila Tuesday, but was turned away by immigration authorities after landing in Taipei and had to return to the Philippines.

Demonstrating support for Hsu's attempts to return home has been a mixed blessing for the opposition. Hsu's boldness in confronting the Taiwan government has been one more rallying point for the new party. It has brought more international attention to tomorrow's voting for seats in the National Assembly and the legislative Yuan, increasing pressure on the Kuomintang, or the ruling Nationalist Party, to be more tolerant of its would-be rivals.

However, the demonstrations in support of Hsu have also damaged the domestic image of the new party at a time when its political future is highly uncertain and it is appealing for support at the polls.

New political parties are still illegal in Taiwan, and the DPP is officially labeled provisional pending legislation expected early next year. Observers say the authorities have permitted the party to form in tacit recognition that some domestic political change is overdue and inevitable. But whether the DPP will become a permanent fixture in Taiwan politics is far from clear.

``Until the end of last month, the public was becoming more sympathetic toward the opposition and less afraid of speaking their political views,'' said Tsai Shi-yuan, an opposition candidate in Taipei. ``But then the government started to discredit us as a violent group, and that probably will hurt us a lot.''

In his campaign speeches this week, Mr. Tsai has accused the Kuomintang of using smear tactics - blaming the DPP for starting last week's violence and raising public doubts about its stand on the question of independence for Taiwan, a subject forbidden in political discourse. Tsai said that the lack of access to the news media has made it difficult to correct these alleged distortions. ``Our resources are very limited,'' he said.

A government spokesman questioned the opposition's claim that it is committed to nonviolence.

``If Mr. Hsu Guo-tang [brother of Hsu Hsin-liang] didn't lead several hundred people to the airport, you wouldn't have seen that kind of conflict,'' said Raymond Tai, deputy director general of the government information office. More than 40 people, mostly policemen, were injured in the demonstration, and numerous cars were overturned when supporters learned Hsu would not be allowed in the country. Taiwan television showed one instance of a policeman throwing rocks at demonstrators.

Mr. Tai also questioned the first plank in the Democratic Progressive Party's political platform, a plank which has not been reported in the Taiwan press. It calls for the future of Taiwan ``to be decided by all of the residents of Taiwan together.'' Essentially a call for self-determination, it comes perilously close to calling for independence - which is outlawed - and is the grounds for the sedition charge against Hsu.

Some voters are troubled by the impression that the opposition party would resort to violence and not uphold the law.

``I'll vote for the Kuomintang. I'll uphold my country,'' said Huang Ren-zong, recently demobilized from the military after two years of service. ``Most of my schoolmates don't have a good opinion of the new party,'' he said after hearing an emotional appeal by candidate Tsai to support the opposition.

Others in the audience were more sympathetic. ``When I was in high school I expected we would have a new political party,'' said Hsu Yu-ysiang, a salesman. ``I think this is a turning point in Taiwan politics.''

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