Troubled politics in Taiwan

President Chen staved off an opposition push for a recall vote, but his influence is sharply diminished.

An opposition motion to recall President Chen Shui-bian, whose family is accused of profiting from their proximity to power, failed Tuesday to pass in the legislature, giving breathing space to the embattled president.

But the heat generated by the thwarted recall, which needed a two-thirds majority to force a national referendum, seems unlikely to diminish, leaving Taiwan with a lame-duck president until 2008.

President Chen has denied any hand in a corruption case that has snagged his son-in-law, who was arrested last month, and touched his wife, who is accused of receiving payoffs from a company but has not been charged. A senior aide has also been implicated, though not charged.

Chen apologized Tuesday for the political upheaval and appealed to lawmakers to let the legal inquiry into the corruption charges run its course, but his opponents continued to call on him to step down. His fiercest critics in the legislature, which is controlled by an opposition coalition, threatened to launch a censure motion against his cabinet, which requires a simple majority to pass.

A blow to Chen would appear to pave the way for the Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, to lead his once-invincible Kuomintang Party (KMT) back into power.

As Chen's star has faded, undone by policy setbacks and scandals, so Mr. Ma's has risen, to the point where he's already seen as heir apparent to the presidency. Opponents admit that he's the candidate to beat.

That could be welcome news to China, which is keeping a close eye on how the turmoil plays out, analysts say. Chen's pro- independence camp has soured cross-straits relations. Mayor Ma, by contrast, is considered more likely to extend an olive branch to the mainland should he step into the top slot. Ma has said that he favors eventual reunification if it is supported by a majority of Taiwanese.

"Beijing is watching very carefully to see what kind of leader Ma is, and will be in the future. It's important for cross-straits relations," says Professor Lo.

The Chen recall vote "is all about who will be the next leader of the country. Forget Chen. He's finished, a lame duck," says Lo Chih-Cheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "People are looking to judge who they will vote for in 2008."

With a two-term limit on the presidency, Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is likely to throw its weight behind Premier Su Tseng-Chang, who recently was given a greater role in policymaking. But Chen's erratic handling of the corruption probe has hurt its chances of holding the presidency and regaining the legislature, say analysts.

Some of Chen's supporters are worrying aloud about the party's future. "The DPP is committing political suicide. We're not taking a strong stance on corruption – and it's becoming impossible for us to succeed in 2008," says Lee Wen-chung, a three-term DPP legislator.

A Harvard-educated lawyer and former justice minister, Ma has put his stamp on Taipei since he became mayor in 1998, when his opponent was then-opposition party leader Chen. The city's humming economy and swish buildings, most of them wired for the Internet, are seen as a sign that Ma can deliver. Unlikely many of the old-timers in the KMT, which ruled Taiwan for decades under martial law, Ma has a reputation as being graft-free, methodical, and socially progressive.

But the heated row over the presidential recall hasn't necessarily played to Ma's strengths. He initially resisted the idea when it was first proposed by James Soong, the firebrand leader of an allied party.

Ma later reversed course, while trying to strike a more conciliatory tone, leaving some KMT legislators wondering if he had the stomach for Taiwan's brand of full-blooded political sport.

Chen's supporters say that Ma was forced to take an extreme position that will lose him votes among fed upTaiwanese who want to see the legislature get back to business. A logjam between the executive and opposition-run legislature has left many bills on hold, including a landmark package to shrink the number of seats in the house and redraw electoral boundaries. A weapons deal with the US, valued between $10 billion ans $19 billion, also continues to languish.

"As a presidential candidate, Ma should have a vision and see the national perspective. What he's doing right now is destroying the DPP, and not in the right way," says Ker Chien-ming, head of the DPP legislative caucus.

Viewed from the outside, Taiwan's divisive politics might appear to be an aspect of its perennial identity crisis as a "renegade province" of China, the giant across the straits. Chen made his name as a pro-independence diehard who stood up to the ruling KMT, which favors eventual reunification with the mainland. But such divisions don't figure much in the current sparrings, which focus on Chen's alleged misconduct and the ability of the ruling party to keep the economy ticking.

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