Pivotal Elections in Taiwan Will Shape Relations With Beijing

LAI YOUNG-HSING is part of the cutting edge of political change in Taiwan.

During his military service almost two decades ago, Mr. Lai was forced to join the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan's longtime iron-fisted ruler and still governing party officially committed to reunification with China.

But the garment-factory owner this week joined thousands of his middle-class neighbors at a rally backing the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - advocates of an independent Taiwan. ``Many of my friends still support the [KMT] because they are afraid of instability....'' says Lai, referring to China's vow to block independence moves. ``But I think Taiwan should be its own master ... What Beijing does is its business. This is our country.''

In another milestone in Taiwan's rambunctious transition from harsh autocracy to no-holds-barred democracy, millions here will go to the polls tomorrow in an election that will shape their island's future relations with China.

The island-wide vote for the influential governorship of Taiwan and the mayoral races in Kaohsiung and Taipei is a further step in a democratic experiment that has set Taiwan apart from its authoritarian Asian neighbors and demonstrated that prosperity and political liberties can go hand-in-hand in Chinese society.

At no time since political liberalization was launched in Taiwan in 1989 have the issues been so stark as this week. Voters must choose between the comfortable status quo of the KMT and the rising opposition force of the DPP, many of whose leaders were in jail only a few years ago.

Under President Lee Teng-Hui, a moderate and a native Taiwanese, the KMT remains tenuously committed to reunification with the mainland but has been forced to play to popular sentiment and an emerging Taiwanese national identity by pushing for greater international recognition.

Appointed Taiwan governor James Soong, the consummate China-born KMT insider who is seeking election for the first time, has been forced to transform himself into a populist to preserve his front-running position. Facing a growing challenge from Chen Ting-nan, his opponent Mr. Soong has had to distance himself from the KMT's autocratic past but has accused Mr. Chen, a native Taiwanese, of promoting ethnic differences between mainlanders and Taiwanese natives.

Painted by the KMT as an unruly minority courting the wrath of Beijing, the DPP has also been forced to soft-peddle its shrill independence rhetoric and has tried to quiet public fears over tense relations with the mainland.

Chen Shui-bian, a charismatic human rights lawyer and DPP activist, has catapulted himself into the lead in the race for mayor of Taipei by sidestepping the risky topic of independence and capitalizing on middle-class disenchantment with a broadside against government corruption.

``Our political landscape will be changed by this election,'' says Antonio Chiang, publisher of The Journalist, Taiwan's most influential political magazine. ``The [KMT] has changed a lot in recent years but not enough. They have tried to transform themselves ... but they still keep the same skeleton.... On the other hand, the DPP is very calculating. They are not radical. They have become more conservative. They are middle class,'' he says.

Yet ultimately determining the election, analysts in Taiwan say, will be voters' calculations on Beijing's vow to take a declared independent Taiwan by force. China's rhetoric has solidified the KMT hold on the business community, which worries about its extensive trade and investment ties with the mainland. ``For 40 years under the KMT, Taiwanese have gotten rich,'' says Ying Yi-hsiu, who runs a Taipei engineering consulting firm. ``We don't need all this chaos. We don't need this political trouble.''

Political observers say the typical hurly-burly of Taiwanese politics - in which politicians often resort to fisticuffs, supporters scuffle at rallies, and campaign headquarters are even attacked - has been more subdued this year. Although vote-buying remains an inherent part of the election scene, says a Western analyst, ``What we have here is a more equal struggle for power.''

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