Taiwan's new President, Lee Teng-hui, faces the daunting challenge of guiding Taiwan from dependence on charismatic dictatorship to collective rule. Without the dynastic legitimacy and sweeping political network of the late President Chiang Ching-kuo, Mr. Lee confronts formidable rivals within the ruling party, who could stymie his effort to bring Taiwan into this new political era, according to Taiwanese legislators and Western observers.
Taiwan's first native President must brave ethnic prejudice as he leads the ruling party's inner circle of mainland Chinese, some of the 2 million people who fled from communist rule to the island in 1949.
As a movement for independence from China grows among the Taiwanese, Lee is well-suited to bolster the party's appeal among the 85 percent of the population born on Taiwan. But as a native, he lacks the cachet enjoyed by Chiang and his father, Chiang Kai-shek, who were viewed as heros, holding out on China's island province against communism.
Nevertheless, during his first few days as chief executive, Lee should be heartened by two legacies from his predecessor's unfinished liberal reform.
First, in his final years, Chiang promoted consensus decision-making within the Kuomintang (KMT) or ruling party. He divided the party's central standing committee into six groups handling a range of issues from finance to education and directed the subcommittees to hand up recommendations to the full committee.
This diffusion of power angered some of Chiang's top advisors, who were jealous of their former monopoly on the decision-making process. But it weakened these potential adversaries to the new president.
Second, Chiang rehabilitated from political exile and took on as his right-hand man a Kuomintang leader considered by Taiwan legislators to be the strongest liberal reformer within the party's upper echelon: KMT General Secretary Lee Huan.
The new President is a prot'eg'e of Lee Huan and just one of hundreds of Taiwanese the general secretary has recruited, trained, and fielded as legislative candidates or party cadres since the early seventies.
``Lee Huan and Lee are very close and have been since the fifties, and there's no doubt he will be the strongest ally of the President - if not the power behind the President,'' said a Western observer in Taipei.
Neither Lee Huan nor a party apparatus restructured by Chiang can fully protect the power of the new President. Party leaders representing the military and conservative KMT members opposed to the gradual surrendering of the party's monopoly rule are eager to fill the political vacuum created by the demise of strong man Chiang, the observers and legislators said.
``Mr. Lee is President only in law - there will be a big power struggle among the top leaders of the KMT,'' said Chiou I-ren, deputy secretary general of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
The failure of Chiang to sufficiently prepare for anything other than a dynastic succession and the comparatively weak power base of the new President makes such top level infighting likely, Mr. Chiou said.
Many observers view President Lee as vulnerable because of his political reserve. An agricultural economist educated at Cornell University, Lee is viewed as a technocrat lacking the political savvy of his mainland rivals.
However, Chiang indirectly strengthened the hand of the new President by initiating liberal reforms. These steps have granted limited power to disaffected Taiwanese citizens, the potential supporters of Chiang's successor, according to a Western observer.
``The late President lessened the influence of party conservatives by elevating young members of the party and putting Taiwan people into key positions. He increased the importance of democracy in the political equation, and effective public support today is more important to the top leadership than before,'' he said.
The writer recently returned from several weeks in Taiwan.