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Taiwan: Chen's Weakness May Keep The Straits Tense

International Outlook

Taiwan: Chen's Weakness May Keep the Straits Tense

When Chen Shui-bian took over Taiwan's presidency in May of this year, he pledged to deliver on two ambitious goals. At home, he promised to break the grip of "black gold," the corrupt money politics that had been practiced throughout 55 years of rule by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party. Chen also promised to break the deadlock across the Taiwan Strait by bringing Beijing to the negotiating table for the first time since 1993.

Now, four months into his presidency, Chen is floundering on both fronts. His efforts to attack corruption have riled Taiwan's old-line business elite and helped send the stock market into a spiral. And despite repeated overtures to China, Beijing's leadership steadfastly refuses to talk with Chen. So far, Beijing has dismissed Chen's proposals for establishing direct postal, phone, and transport links and launching high-level talks.

Top politicians in Beijing have openly snubbed the Taiwan President: Instead, they have welcomed a steady stream of opposition politicians from Taiwan's KMT, the People First Party, and the New Party--a move that undermines Chen's credibility at home. The relationship between China and Taiwan "is still in a deadlock," says Li Jiaquan, a top expert on Taiwan in Beijing.WITCH HUNT? Chen's disappointing performance is dampening hopes in the region that tension across the Taiwan Strait could ease anytime soon. Chen's aides had promoted the popular 49-year-old former Taipei mayor as the leader best able to cut a deal with the Chinese. That's because Chen comes from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As the reasoning went, Chen could play a role like that of former U.S. President Richard Nixon's when he opened ties with China: Just as the anticommunist Nixon could make an overture to Beijing without fear of being undercut by conservatives in the U.S., so pro-independence Chen might be able to forge an acceptable deal with Beijing. The hope was that Chen would be able to unite the island's people behind an innovative solution.

But Chen's ability to build a consensus on both foreign and domestic issues is diminishing rapidly. A key problem is that he must deal with a legislature dominated by the KMT, which is doing its best to stymie Chen's anticorruption drive. Chen also faces a major test as he goes after corruption in the military: He has revived an investigation into alleged kickbacks over a 1991 purchase of French-made frigates. Two officers were arrested on Sept. 24, and more arrests are expected. But some officers are accusing Chen of a political witch hunt, analysts say.

Meanwhile, Chen is facing mounting pressures from within his own DPP. Party members criticized the President for appointing former Defense Minister Tang Fei of the KMT as Premier, rather than a DPP leader. "The new government is a mess," says Antonio Chiang, a political analyst and Chen supporter. Another hot issue is Taiwan's partially completed fourth nuclear plant. Diehard DPP members oppose the $5.6 billion project on environmental grounds. But Chen and his Cabinet fear that canceling it could spark a legislative revolt, including a vote of no confidence in his Cabinet.

Faced with these challenges, Chen is in danger of becoming a potential lame duck before his first year in office ends. Since he was elected for a four-year term, Chen's position as President is safe. But the more battles he loses, the less likely it is that Beijing will take him seriously. Until Chen overcomes his setbacks on the home front, the promise of his presidency is likely to remain unfulfilled.By Brent Hannon in Taipei and Dexter Roberts in Beijing; Edited by Rose BradyReturn to top

Coming Shakeup in Poland?

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a 46-year-old former Communist supported by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), is expected to be re-elected to a second five-year term on Oct. 8. A recent survey shows 53% of Poles support him.

But the presidential victory may set the stage for a major shakeup in Polish politics. The SLD is pushing for parliamentary elections scheduled for September, 2001, to be held in late spring. The SLD wants to ride on Kwasniewski's coattails to improve on its current 161-seat position in the 460-seat Sejm. Elections will be called if the current Solidarity minority government fails to get its budget passed by Mar. 31. The Freedom Union party (UW) is objecting to populist measures such as 8% to 12% wage hikes for teachers that could bust the 2001 budget. Polls show 40% of the electorate backs the SLD, vs. 20% for Solidarity and 8% for Freedom Union. An SLD-controlled Parliament might slow economic reform but would still push for admission to the European Union starting in 2003.Edited by Rose BradyReturn to top

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