Taiwan Ruling Party Ousted

By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Sunday 19 March 2000; A01

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 18—Defying threats from Beijing, Taiwan’s voters elected a former political dissident and champion of Taiwanese independence as their new president today, ending a half-century of Nationalist Party rule and setting the stage for more tension with China.

Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party won with 39 percent of the vote, handing a stunning defeat to Nationalist candidate Lien Chan, who placed a distant third with 23 percent. Chen outpolled the third candidate, independent challenger James Soong, by just 2.5 percentage points.

The victory, although narrow, seemed certain to send shock waves through the political and security landscape of East Asia. It represented rejection of recent Chinese threats that sought to frighten Taiwan’s people into voting for Lien or Soong, both of whose stands on independence are more flexible than Chen’s.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji suggested Wednesday that if Taiwanese voters chose Chen, they would not get another chance to vote, and China’s state-run press has lambasted the 49-year-old Taiwanese lawyer as a separatist.

The Chinese government, in a statement tonight, repeated its insistence that Taiwan is a province of China that must reunite with the mainland and added that it will listen to what the new leader in Taiwan says and watch what he does.

President Clinton, meanwhile, said Chen’s victory clearly demonstrates the strength and vitality of Taiwan’s democracy and expressed hope it will prompt a resumption of talks between Taipei and Beijing.

As a boisterous crowd of more than 150,000 people with foghorns and firecrackers massed outside his campaign headquarters late tonight, Chen directed his first public comments as president-elect to China, extending an olive branch to the government in Beijing.

Before my inauguration I hope to make a journey of reconciliation to China, he said. Our goal is reconciliation with good intentions, active cooperation and eternal peace.

But, holding firm to his policy, he added that Beijing’s idea of unifying with Taiwan under the one country, two systems plan followed by Hong Kong and Macao will never be acceptable to Taiwan, which he repeatedly has insisted must be considered a sovereign country.

We will never be a second Hong Kong or a second Macao, Chen told reporters. This is indisputable.

The son of a poor sugar plantation worker, Chen rose to prominence in the late 1970s as a lawyer defending dissidents during one of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s many crackdowns on dissent.

In the 1980s, his wife was paralyzed when a van allegedly driven by Nationalist operatives plowed into his car at an anti-government rally. Chen by that time was running the Democratic Progressive Party and was a strong supporter of declaring independence for Taiwan.

In 1994, he became the first opposition party member to be elected Taipei’s mayor, earning good reviews for improving traffic and cracking down on prostitution. But he lost a reelection bid last year to the Nationalist candidate.

Since he became mayor, and even more so during the campaign for today’s vote, Chen has softened his views on independence and what to do about it, without jettisoning the principle. He announced that as president he will not declare independence, arguing that Taiwan is already sovereign.

He also vowed that he will not rewrite Taiwan’s constitution, which enshrines the principle that there is only one China and Taiwan belongs to it--something the separatist wing of Chen’s party rejects.

In the last week of the campaign, Chen moved yet another step away from the party’s independence plank, saying he will not take part in party activities while he is president.

Although the independence issue drew the most interest abroad, Chen’s supporters actually came from two main sources. One was people who are not interested in unifying with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, rejects self-determination and has vowed to attack if Taiwan declares independence. Another, more numerous group, including most of the young, was people who back Chen’s plan to clean up black gold, the nexus of crime, corruption and politics that became a hallmark of the Nationalist-run system.

We want a revolution! said Tsui Ming-ming, an ebullient 21-year-old college student who said her whole class of 46 students voted for Chen, who is known as Ah-Bian. We’ve had enough of black gold.

Of course I voted for reform, said Shen Kuo-liang, 58, a worker in a semiconductor factory. Am I afraid of China? No. I was a marine for three years. My two sons are doing military service now. Our life-and-death struggle here isn’t with the Communists, it’s with corruption, and Ah-Bian is the man for the job.

The Nationalist ticket was essentially split between Lien, Taiwan’s 63-year-old vice president who never connected with Taiwan’s voters and ran a lackadaisical campaign, and Soong, a 58-year-old former party luminary who left the Nationalists last year following a personal spat with President Lee Teng-hui. Soong said following his defeat that he planned to form a new political party, a move that could further divide his former party,

In a key endorsement, Lee Yuan-tzu, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry known as the conscience of Taiwan, threw his support to Chen last week.

In interviews throughout Taiwan, dozens of voters credited Lee’s support as the reason they voted for Chen.

If Professor Lee thinks Taiwan is safe in Chen’s hands, so do I, said Chiang Min-sheng, a farmer in central Taiwan. I was going to vote for Soong, but he changed my mind.

While Chen’s camp portrayed the ballot as a rejection of China’s threats, other voters pointed out that 60 percent of Taiwan’s electorate did not vote for Chen and that he won in a three-way race.

In any case, Chen’s victory added a new note to a dance among China, Taiwan and the United States, which has pledged to defend the island.

Most analysts in Taiwan and the West said they expect China will cool its rhetoric and wait until Chen is inaugurated May 20 before exerting any new pressure on him to resume talks on reunification. A few, however, said China might launch war games or another verbal assault in an effort to cause Taiwan’s stock market to crash.

Wu Yu-shan, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University, said he expects Chen will be eager to fulfill his promises to remake Taiwan’s domestic politics, including a vow to dismantle the Nationalists’ $7 billion business empire.

As a result, Wu predicted, Chen could seek a dramatic act to improve ties with China quickly, easing pressure on the independence issue and gaining popular support at home.

Wu listed several possibilities: a trip to Beijing; opening shipping, direct flights and postal service with China; or resuming negotiations, which have been stalled since last year.

The question, he added, is whether China will accept Chen’s overture without his making a clear statement on the one China principle.

I don’t think any of these things will materialize if the basic framework isn’t there, Wu said late tonight. Beijing will need some kind of minimum commitment to the ‘one China’ idea.

But Kuo Jen-liang, one of Chen’s closest foreign policy advisers, said his boss might make such a commitment.

Kuo, in an interview, said Chen would be willing to accept a formulation put forward by Taiwan in 1992 that was rejected at the time by Beijing. It said there is only one China, but each side of the Taiwan Strait has a different definition of what it is.