Taiwan leader goes to bat for democratic reforms - within limits

The leader of Taiwan yesterday climaxed a year of rapid and peaceful democratic reforms by delineating the limits of such liberal change. President Lee Teng-Hui pledged to accelerate democratic reform, but not so much that it would enable the opposition to challenge the ruling party's nearly four decades of predominance.

Applauding a banner year in Taiwan for the freedoms of press, speech, and political association, Mr. Lee told the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) at the opening of its 13th congress that it ``should accelerate the implementation of the reforms ... with an even more active and responsible attitude.''

This congress is critical to President Lee's efforts to bolster his power base after less than six months in office. As the first native KMT ruler, Lee lacks the dynastic aura of his predecessors Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek. He also lacks deep personal or political ties with the officials that Chiang Ching-kuo left behind after his death in January.

Lee called on about 1,200 party delegates - in an indoor stadium decked with the red, white, and blue flags of China's breakaway province - to ``fortify the substance and function of democracy.''

But members of Taiwan's two opposition parties denounced Lee for failing to champion a constitutional reform critical to Taiwan's evolution toward true pluralistic democracy. The KMT has all but monopolized the island's legislature since it led 2 million Chinese refugees to Taiwan after its defeat by communists on mainland China in 1949. Only 73 seats of the legislative Yuan, Taiwan's leading lawmaking body, are held by members elected on Taiwan. Most of the other 206 seats are held by legislators elected on the mainland before the Nationalists' retreat.

Lee skirted a reference to a reform that would open up these seats to locally elected lawmakers and give the opposition a chance to topple the Nationalists and control the government.

``In the past year, the KMT has made some changes but not of great significance .... It still must open up all parliamentary seats to people on Taiwan in order to make the government truly representative,'' says Chiou I-ren , an official of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Since ending 38 years of martial law last July, the KMT has dropped a ban on rival political parties, partially loosened press restrictions, tolerated peaceful assemblies, released hundreds of political prisoners, and allowed more than 100,000 islanders to visit mainland relatives.

The reforms have released a flood of political activity, from anti-government screeds in the press, to daily protests, to a surge in opposition parties' membership.

The congress will enable Nationalist leaders to reconcile conservative party elders from the mainland to such breakneck changes while elevating young, pro-reform technocrats, Western observers say. It will also allow leaders to nurture involvement in policy-making by the grassroots, softening a tradition of authoritarian rule, the observers say.

Regardless of the quick reforms, party leaders Thursday stressed they will not sacrifice stability to further what they call ``constitutional democracy.''

``Implementing democracy must go hand in hand with abiding by the rule of law; the two are complementary,'' said party Secretary-General Lee Huan. ``If democracy and freedom are derailed from rule of law, the nation will end up in a state of chaos.'' His comment referred particularly to a May 20 antigovernment demonstration that left hundreds of police and protesters injured.

Lee, despite his local origins, reaffirmed the party's Messianic aim of retaking the mainland. He decried the excesses of Chinese communist rulers and Peking's failure to improve the livelihood of Chinese at the headlong clip of Taipei. In 1952, Taiwan's per capita gross national product was $48. Today, it is $5,000 - about 25 times the mainland figure. Lee spoke of ``our responsibility to help [mainlanders] escape from poverty and slavery at as early a date as possible.''

Lee is expected to win approval as chairman early in the week-long congress.

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