In the early hours of Sunday morning, Taiwan became a multi-party state in everything but name. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is still not formally recognized by the martial-law government here, established itself decisively as a new political force in the first elections in which it has ever competed. At the same time, the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, or KMT) maintained its control of Taiwan's highest legislative bodies by a wide margin.
These results suggest strongly that the KMT is unlikely to pull back from a series of political liberalization measures, including the repeal of martial law, now being urged by President Chiang Ching-kuo. The real winners, according to analysts on both sides of the political fence, are Taiwan's 12 million voters, who this year have been demanding orderly progress toward democracy with increasing impatience.
There was no indication yesterday among political commentators or in the tone adopted by the government-supervised press that the KMT, which has ruled without challenge since 1949, was anything but pleased with the results. The English-language China Post and several other newspapers termed the elections ``an apparent landslide for the KMT'' in their Sunday morning editions.
The KMT won 59 of the 73 seats up for election in the Legislative Branch, Taiwan's formal lawmaking body, and almost 70 percent of the vote. In the National Assembly, which approves constitutional amendments and elects the president and vice-president, the party won 68 of 84 open seats and two-thirds of the vote. (Taiwan has three parliamentary bodies, the third being the Control Branch.)
But even KMT officials acknowledged that the significance of Saturday's polling lay in the unexpectedly strong showing of the DPP, formed less than three months ago. The DPP doubled the number of legislative seats previously held by the opposition to 12; it also won 11 seats in the Assembly, up from four. Overall, it raised the opposition's percentage of the vote from about 15 percent in elections last year to almost 25 percent. The remaining votes were won by independent candidates.
It was not an easy campaign for the DPP, particularly in the days right before the election. The opposition advanced charges of election irregularities - vote-buying and election-law violations, which are common here - almost constantly.
But a demonstration that turned violent last week, when longtime political dissidents were refused permission to return from exile in the United States, was widely blamed on the DPP and contributed to an image problem that oppositionists expected to be a costly setback. In store-front branch offices throughout the capital, the DPP screened videotapes of the event until late Saturday evening that purportedly showed the government to have provoked the violence.
``When we started, we expected to win more than 30 percent of the vote,'' said Yang Zhu-chuen, an opposition activist. ``Now it's anybody's guess, but it will be much lower than that.'' Although the party has gained a solid foothold, it is still unclear just what role it will play in Taiwan's changing political scene. In part, this will depend on how well the DPP can develop policies that will sustain its political momentum.
Among the large contingent of academic specialists and US congressional aides who came to observe the polling, some said they now anticipate the development of a dominant-party system similar to that of Japan, where the Liberal Democrats maintain unbroken power despite challenges from competing parties.
But this would require the KMT to accept a substantial distinction between itself and the machinery of government - a distinction that does not currently exist.
However such issues are resolved, all sides see the elections as a bridge to a more democratic future. Underscoring the importance placed on the polls was the presence of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the President's stepmother and widow of the KMT's longtime leader, during the campaign period. She returned from the US in October for the first time in nearly a decade to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her husband's birth.
There has been widespread speculation that she may have been lending support to KMT conservatives opposed to reform. But in an article printed in all the major newspapers on election eve, Mrs. Chiang appeared to support the reform program while maintaining a highly critical stance toward the KMT's adversaries.
``There is instant coffee and there is instant tea, but only charlatanry could provide instant democracy,'' she wrote. ``What the wildly ambitious want is to profit from anarchy, not law and order.''
Analysts interpreted this as an indication of recent debates within the ruling party. But the elections did not appear to give the KMT any reason to retreat from its commitment to liberalization, as many feared more violence or more substantial opposition gains would have.