Taiwan Voters Opt for Stability

After clear rebuff at polls, liberal opposition plans to take its reform bid to the streets

AFTER staging a bold, five-year struggle for liberal reform, the opposition party in Taiwan has learned that democracy can reject even its most stalwart champions.The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) failed in elections on Saturday to win the one-quarter of the seats in the National Assembly it needs to influence constitutional reform. Voters gave the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), 79 percent of the seats in the 403-member Assembly; the DPP won 16 percent. The KMT has pledged that the Assembly will make democratic revisions to the current Constitution by the middle of 1992. Denied key institutional influence over political change, the DPP plans to renew the mass protests that first gave it a toehold in the legislature, DPP officials say. "Even without a quarter of the seats we will still fight through mass protests to make sure the KMT revisions of the Constitution don't go through," says James Chen, a DPP official. Amendments to the Constitution require the vote of 75 percent of Assembly deputies. "With more than three-quarters of the Assembly seats, the KMT is unlikely to listen to us inside the Assembly," he adds. The opposition wants to scrap the current Constitution for a new one that simplifies the legislature and requires direct election of the president, the governor of Taiwan, and the mayors of the island's two largest cities. Currently, the National Assembly elects the president, who appoints the Taiwan governor and the mayors of Taipei and Kaohsiung. The DPP is especially opposed to reported plans by the KMT to amend the Constitution in a way that legitimizes the powerful police apparatus and sweeping emergency powers for the president. The KMT has not publicized its plans for constitutional revision. Although the DPP lost at the ballot box, it apparently scored big on the hustings. Moderate KMT candidates, responding to the extreme stand of their DPP rivals, broke ranks with their party and endorsed the direct election of the president. Even leading KMT officials have begun to support the idea of direct election of the Taiwan governor and the island's two top mayors. The turnabout by the KMT candidates supported the argument of many political analysts and legislators that moderates in the KMT and DPP basically agree on the pace and substance for democratic reform. The shared views improve the prospect for cooperation between the two parties, although the election victory gives the KMT little incentive to compromise, say the legislators and analysts. DPP leader Hsu Hsin-liang blamed the election setback on vote buying by the KMT. Reports of election bribery by the well-endowed ruling party were rampant, with some 130 bribery complaints filed at the central election commission by early Sunday. Mr. Hsu also said his party was hampered by the complete hold of the KMT on the three national TV stations. Still, voters apparently found the KMT slogan of "stability, prosperity, and progress" more appealing than the DPP's risky cry for Taiwan independence. The DPP reckons the independence message will rally Taiwanese around their common heritage and shared resentment toward the KMT and the 15 percent of the population with a mainland background, Mr. Chen says. The independence movement also goads the KMT toward liberal reform by making it acknowledge that it does not fully represent Taiwan, he says. The KMT claims sovereignty over all China and in past years backed up this assertion by keeping in office hundreds of deputies elected to the Assembly on the mainland in 1947. The ruling party considers advocacy of independence a form of sedition and had threatened to dissolve the DPP after the election. Also, China has said it would invade Taiwan if the island formally breaks from the mainland. Faced with the threat of conflict, voters opted for the prospect of continued prosperity and gradual change under KMT leadership rather than the DPP's hurly burly reform, say the analysts. "The independence movement causes too much uncertainty in the minds of voters," says Hu Fu, a political scientist at National Taiwan University. "The people on Taiwan are more concerned about specific matters of welfare, like housing, pollution, and other issues." Nevertheless, the DPP plans to stage a mass protest on Feb. 23 to demand a plebiscite on the issue of Taiwan independence, says Chai Trong, the leader of the movement for a plebiscite. The Assembly is scheduled to begin reviewing the Constitution in March.

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