More than 50,000 protesters lay down in Taipei's Kaitekelan Boulevard outside President Lee Teng-Hui's offices on May 4, chanting slogans criticizing Lee and calling on Premier Lien Chan to resign. But unlike the violent protests of the 1980s against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party's repression, this time many middle-class families and businesspeople demonstrated peacefully alongside students and opposition activists. "The issue is corruption and incompetence in dealing with crime," says opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Tsai Ming-hsien.
A people-power movement is growing in Taiwan--and KMT leaders are dead worried about how to handle it. Disgust at corruption and alleged KMT mob connections is building rapidly into the most serious challenge ever to the party's five-decade-long grip on power. In March, the DPP defeated the KMT by a huge 18% margin in a special election in suburban Taipei's Taoyuan County. Now, the KMT fears it will lose its two-thirds share of Taiwan's 25 city mayors and county government chiefs who face elections in December. Eventually the party's narrow two-vote majority in the national parliament could even be up for grabs. "The Taoyuan election is a warning for the KMT," admits Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao.
MORE PRESSURE. The latest protests followed the kidnapping for ransom, torture, and murder of the 17-year-old daughter of popular singer Pai Ping-ping. That came on the heels of a series of high-profile and still unsolved killings. Earlier, a prominent opposition feminist was found slain in the southern city of Kaohsiung. And last November, Liu Pang-you, KMT boss of Taoyuan County, was bound and shot in the head at home along with eight others.
Liu's mob-style slaying stepped up pressure on Justice Minister Liao to crack down on crime and gang-influenced corruption, as President Lee had ordered in the summer. Lee didn't have much choice, given the way public opinion turned against the KMT. Besides, he has to worry about the impact of corruption on Taiwan's economic development. Local and foreign companies complain that numerous public projects, such as the enlargement of Taipei's airport, have been delayed by bid-rigging. And government officials were stunned recently when Taiwan's international competitiveness slipped from 18th place to 24th in a world ranking by Switzerland's IMD business school.
Still, the crackdown could backfire on the KMT. Traditionally, the party has bought votes to win elections. Prosecutors have arrested hundreds of elected officials and business executives in corruption probes. Liao says that as many as one-third of local elected officials--and 10% of national ones--are either gang members or have mob connections. "Letting gangs run loose because they help win elections isn't going to be tolerated by the public," says Thomas McGowan, vice-president of Taiwan's American Chamber of Commerce.
Even so, opponents are questioning how much longer KMT brass will allow Liao and his probers free rein. Yao Chia-wen, a member of the DPP Central Standing Committee, says Liao has only been pursuing small-time corruption cases because the KMT can't afford a complete housecleaning. "If the KMT tries to stop everything, it will lose its support," he says. Liao concedes that his cleanup may cost support in the short term. But arrests show the party's resolve, he says, adding: "We must be courageous. In the long run it will benefit the party."
That resolve may shatter as elections draw closer, especially if Liao's net snares bigger prey. It seems that Taiwan's voters are no longer prepared to let their leaders, or anyone else for that matter, get away with murder.