Leaders of Taiwan's nascent opposition party are pressuring the ruling regime to open the island's aging governing bodies to direct elections for the first time in 40 years. Emboldened by the lifting of martial law in July, Taiwan's main opposition force, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staged 20 pro-democracy rallies across the island this fall, frequently drawing crowds of several thousand. Opposition leaders say they expect 10,000 people will attend a protest scheduled for Dec. 25 in Taipei to promote their drive for political reform.
``Our greatest priority is to establish a democratic political system and culture in Taiwan,'' said Chang Chun-hong, one of the opposition's leading intellectuals, who was freed in May after serving more than seven years in prison for criticizing the government.
Opposition leaders warn that without sweeping reforms, Taiwan's 19.7 million people may lash out at President Chiang Ching-kuo's ruling Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party), just as South Koreans and Filipinos rose up against the authoritarian regimes of Chun Doo Hwan and Ferdinand Marcos.
``Only if we quickly adopt more democratic ways can we avert a revolution,'' said Mr. Chang, a leader of the opposition's popular Formosa Faction. Without greater democracy, Chang said, the conflict between opposition radicals and what he described as ``reactionaries'' in the KMT and military could lead to upheaval and ``another form of authoritarianism.''
Drastic reform of Taiwan's three nominally representative bodies is necessary if the small but influential opposition is ever to compete on a fair footing with the dominant Kuomintang for control of the island.
More than 80 percent of the approximately 1,500 members of the three assemblies are aged KMT politicians, who were either elected or runners-up in polls on mainland China in 1947 and 1948. In 1949, Communist forces drove Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang regime to Taiwan along with about 2 million troops and followers.
Since then, Taiwan's government has prohibited elections to replace the elderly politicians on the grounds that they represent constituencies on mainland China. Taipei still claims sovereignty over the mainland despite nearly four decades of rule by what it calls ``Communist rebels.''
While President Chiang and other KMT leaders have acknowledged the need for unspecified ``political reform,'' they have rejected opposition demands for the wholesale democratization of Taiwan's representative assemblies. Such reforms would undermine the KMT's claim to legitimately represent mainland China, since all representatives would be elected from Taiwan.
The government authorized a series of polls beginning in 1969 to fill a small number of ``supplementary'' seats added to the depleted assemblies for representatives from Taiwan.
Today, these marginal seats constitute less than 20 percent of the total. They are the only seats open to competition from the opposition. They vastly underrepresent the island's native Taiwanese and aborigines, who make up 85 percent of the population, compared with those from mainland China and their offspring, who constitute 15 percent.
``People on Taiwan have waited too long for a normal power structure,'' said Chiou I-jen, deputy secretary general of the opposition's Democratic Progressive Party. ``We think the KMT's claim [to rule mainland China] is ridiculous.''
Through its public rallies and protests, the DPP is attempting to garner enough support from Taiwan's 12 million predominantly middle-class voters to force the 2.3-million-strong KMT to ease its grip on the legislative bodies.
``We must concentrate all our efforts on transforming the parliament. Without reform we cannot do much,'' said Yao Chia-wen, the chairman of the DPP. The DPP's chief demand is that general, direct elections be held for the three legislative organs: the 315-member Legislative Yuan, the formal law-making body; the roughly 1,000-strong National Assembly, which approves constitutional amendments and elects the president and vice-president; and the Control Yuan, a watch-dog group with about 100 members, who are indirectly elected.
The opposition party has also called for abolishment of the National Assembly's substitution system, whereby deceased members are replaced by people who were unsuccessful candidates in the 1947 mainland elections. More than 600 assemblymen have been replaced in this way, and some 200 substitutes are now awaiting positions, according to Mr. Yao.
Moreover, the DPP seeks a guarantee of ``equal value for every vote.'' Under the current system, all three assemblies have quotas for certain types of representatives - for example those elected by the overseas Chinese community and by occupational associations - who may win seats with far fewer votes than those who are elected by the population at large.
``It is impossible to force the elder members to step down ... politically impossible,'' said Ma Ying-jeou, deputy secretary general of the KMT.
``The senior members are a large voting block,'' added Mr. Ma.
He said the government plans to establish a voluntary retirement plan for members of the Legislative Yuan, including a ``handsome salary'' and other benefits he said would ensure veteran legislators ``a glorious and honorable exit.'' But he estimated that even after the retirements, ``senior members'' - most of them KMT - would still occupy at least half the seats.
Many KMT veterans resent the opposition's drive to push them aside, according to one government official.
``Some people are willing to retire, but not under the circumstances. They get very angry [at the opposition demands],'' said Wei Yung, chairman of a government research commission under Taiwan's Cabinet.
One Western observer put it more bluntly: ``The KMT is not going to open itself up to defeat in elections,'' he said.
Yet despite resistance from party veterans and Taiwan's influential military establishment, some observers believe the popular support evident at the opposition's rallies is forcing President Chiang to take the demands for democracy more seriously.
``The mass movement tactics of the opposition have had an effect on pressuring the KMT to hasten the pace of change,'' said one Western observer who follows political developments on Taiwan. ``[The opposition] cause is being publicized. The government is taking note,'' said the observer.
KMT leaders and government officials have stated repeatedly that they foresee a multi-party system evolving in Taiwan modeled after the Japanese system, where the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is held in check by several minor parties.
However, opposition leaders hold that the minimum requirement for such a system is fair and open elections for representative bodies.
``If the KMT wants to be like Japan's LDP they have to create a democratic political system. If they use their own authoritarian ways they'll just be another Marcos,'' said Chang.