TAIWAN'S President Lee Teng-hui won an uncontested election Wednesday to a six-year term with an ease that conceals intense resistance to his democratic reforms. The ruling Kuomintang's (KMT or Nationalist Party) National Assembly overwhelmingly elected Mr. Lee after he rebuffed an effort by aging conservatives to oust him and hinder the liberal changes undermining party primacy.
The election gives Lee a mandate to advance the reforms that in three years have tempered Taiwan's one-party, authoritarian politics with a free press and fledgling opposition.
But the victory won't make enacting liberal reforms easy. The conservative offensive and widespread protests against the elite way of selecting the president are indications that Lee confronts a tough political dilemma. He faces the daunting task of reconciling aged, hard-line party autocrats with a public calling for democracy, diplomats and other analysts say.
Lee ``is certainly the towering political figure.... In terms of balancing conflicting demands, there is nobody that can surpass him,'' says June Dreyer, director of the East Asia Program at the University of Miami.
The election also highlighted the vast, potentially explosive differences between Taiwan's powerful KMT elders and the reform-minded public.
Before the election the 752-member electoral college, or National Assembly, moved to upgrade itself from a rubber stamp organization that convenes to elect the president every six years to a powerful legislative body that meets annually.
For 40 years the assembly, made up primarily of mainlanders elected before 1949, has met merely to approve a member of the ruling Chiang family as president. The majority of delegates fled the mainland with the rest of the Nationalist government in 1949 and so shore up the party's claim to rule all China. Most of them are over 80.
The opposition and much of the public has viewed the assembly as an illegitimate anachronism obstructing a direct ballot for the presidency.
The opposition on Sunday rallied about 20,000 protesters in the center of Taipei and called for swifter democratic reform and the purge of party veterans. The demonstration was one of the largest protests in Taiwan since the Nationalists lifted martial law in 1987.
Also, thousands of university students have demonstrated in a park since Sunday, with 200 of them staging a hunger strike in a reenactment of the protests in Tiananmen Square, the site of student rallies in Beijing last spring. On Tuesday, students presented the assembly with a petition of 100,000 signatures calling on the elders to retire.
Lee has attempted to stymie the veterans' power grab and appease the public by exploiting a popularity rating that according to some polls exceeds 90 percent.
As if to remind the gerontocrats of his vast public support, Lee appeared in an extraordinary television address on Saturday and urged the assembly to ``be more cautious in making their final decisions in order to respect the people's views.''
``Democracy is our common objective,'' he said, adding ``the future of the country has to be decided by the collective views of all the people.''
Moreover, in another apparent effort to sidestep the assembly and appeal to the people, Lee issued a statement on Tuesday saying he will convene an emergency conference to consider changes in the island's political system. The meeting will include members of the ruling and opposition parties as well as other leaders, the statement said. No date was set for the conference.
``If Lee is blocked on something he wants to do [by party members opposed to rapid reform], all he really has to do is go to the people,'' Dr. Dreyer says.
Even if Lee convinces the assembly to abandon its bid for greater power before it adjourns on March 30, he is likely to face opposition from the veterans to his liberal reform and day-to-day administration.
Lee enraged many old guard party leaders by selecting his chief aid as his running mate instead of one of the members of the collective body favored by the late President Chiang Ching-kuo before his death in 1988.
Although Lee was elected as president uncontested, some of his opponents may succeed in watering down Taiwan's most powerful executive post. The economics minister has proposed subordinating the presidency to the premiership. And Lee's rivals are also seeking to make the presidency a mere ceremonial post by dividing it from the chairmanship of the party.