TAIWAN'S pro-independence opposition captured control of Taipei, the island capital, in a weekend election that sets the stage for intensified rivalry with China.
The poll, in which the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) kept provincial governorship and the mayor's seat in the second-largest Kaohsiung city, heightens the growing power of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates Taiwan's independence, and the standoff with China over Taiwan's future.
Beijing has refused to renounce the possible use of force to retake Taiwan, which it considers a part of China, and has watched with mounting alarm the gradual, often tumultuous evolution from autocracy to a democratic system since the KMT lifted martial law in 1987. ``We are moving toward some kind of stable democracy,'' says Diane Ying, editor of Commonwealth magazine. ``But China is still across the [Taiwan] Strait and makes development of democracy risky.''
This latest step toward more democracy, coupled with the island's rising economic wealth, comes as a growing number of Taiwanese favor an official call for independence from the mainland. This popular shift has led the long-ruling KMT to downplay its old claim that Taipei is the legitimate government of all China and instead urges that Beijing recognize Taiwan as a separate and equal political entity in a divided nation.
Saturday's poll was also a forerunner for the 1996 presidential contest, which will cap Taiwan's democratic transition and could be viewed as an open provocation to Beijing. Regarding Taiwan as a renegade province, China is unlikely to tolerate an elected national government, analysts say. The popular incumbent, President Lee Teng-hui, is touted by the KMT as a certain winner, although the DPP holds one-third of the island's legislative seats, controls Taiwan's largest counties, and now, its capital.
The mayoral race in Taipei, a traditional KMT stronghold, was a humiliating defeat for the ruling party, which was the target of voters' disgust. Chen Shui-bian, a highly regarded DPP legislator, swept to victory as Taipei's first elected mayor in 30 years and a possible future presidential contender, political observers say.
Running a poor second was the splinter New Party, which broke with the KMT last year and ran an aggressive campaign appealing to an urban middle class disenchanted with the corrupt KMT but uneasy about the DPP's pro-independence stance.
Yet, the powerful KMT machine scored a resounding win in the governor's race as incumbent James Soong overwhelmed his DPP and New Party opposition. ``This is vindication for our party's record...'' says David Chung, the KMT campaign strategist.
DPP officials said their party's weak showing in the governor's race, the first such island-wide election, posed a setback to the opposition's hopes for the presidential contest. ``This shows our grass-roots support leaves much to be desired,'' says Frank Hsieh, a senior DPP official. ``We do not yet have enough of an organizational mechanism ... This is our Achilles' heel.''
The DPP also chose to quiet shrill calls for independence during the campaign due to growing sentiment to strike a balance between popular democracy and sustain Taiwan's high-growth economy that has extensive trade links with the mainland.
The DPP wants to drop Taiwan's constitutional link with China and change the island's name from the ``Republic of China'' to ``Republic of Taiwan,'' but has vowed to submit the issue to popular vote. New Party rebels, descendants of mainland exiles, claim differences between KMT and the DPP have blurred as the ruling party has courted the favor of the island's predominantly native Taiwanese population.