China's Heat on Taiwan Voters Singes Ruling Nationalists

Party hurt in legislative elections; next: presidential vote

ELATED that Taiwan's ruling Nationalists lost some political control in this weekend's elections, China is expected to continue its military pressure on the island in coming months.

But while Beijing's recent saber-rattling nudged a wave of Taiwan voters toward conciliatory politics, it hardly touched a strong core of Taiwanese who favor independence from the mainland, analysts say.

In Saturday's parliamentary poll, China's military threats and the sliding fortunes of the Nationalist Party - known in Chinese as the Kuomintang, or KMT - cut the party's legislative presence to a hair-breadth majority. In the 164-member parliament, the KMT won 85 seats, down from 11 in the last election in 1992.

Burdened with a reputation as a rich, corrupt political organization, the Nationalists have steadily lost their political grip since decades of martial law gave way to an infant democracy in the late 1970s.

Pledging not to antagonize Beijing, the New Party, a breakaway faction of conservative KMT dissidents, surged strongly. At the expense of the ruling party, the New Party tripled its number of seats to 21 and shook up the political landscape. The party, comprised of one-time Nationalists who fled mainland China after the Communist victory in 1949, seek reunification but not immediately.

But a recent series of Chinese military exercises near Taiwan didn't deter support for the Democratic Progressive Party, which officially backs independence for Taiwan. The main opposition party, which has toned down its overt pro-independence rhetoric but voices strong resentment for mainland military posturing, gained four seats to 54.

Recent opinion polls show that one-fourth of Taiwanese still want reunification and one-fourth back full independence. About one-half want to maintain the status quo of growing economic closeness and political distance from the mainland without riling China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province of the mainland.

"All parties are checking each other. There is no one authority of power anymore," says Antonio Chiang, a prominent Taiwanese journalist. "We are hostage to our history and our geography. We can never get away from China. Whoever is ruling has to be careful. That is the challenge of every party."

The legislative poll makes the run-up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election next March increasingly touchy. Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is the front-runner but finds his position much shakier with a slimmed legislative majority, analysts say.

Mr. Lee surged in popularity at home for pursuing a broader diplomatic presence for Taiwan and making an unofficial visit to the United States last summer. He also enraged Beijing, which fears Lee is pushing Taiwan toward de facto independence. Beijing mounted a vilification campaign against him and turned up military pressure with war games and threatening words.

Chinese missile tests and other war games near the island have scared Taiwanese investors and sent the stock market into a tailspin. As the island's torrid economic growth in recent years has also slowed, economic concerns have tempered political enthusiasm for confronting Beijing.

Western analysts expect Beijing to turn up the pressure before the presidential poll. Military observers say China could conduct air precision bombing exercises in February or March. "The Chinese military will definitely keep up the pressure," says a Chinese political observer. "They want to keep a check on Lee."

That could reduce Lee's share of the presidential vote to less than 50 percent, trigger a further split within the Nationalist ranks, and even force the ruling party into a messy coalition.

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