Making Beijing's Headache Worse

The KMT victory won't cool independence sentiment

Taiwan's ruling party, the Kuomintang, came roaring back in Dec. 5 legislative and mayoral elections. A year ago, the KMT seemed to be on its last legs when it lost out in local elections all over the island. This time around, though, it lavished cash on its candidates, spending over $250 million--more than all its opponents together. And it enforced party discipline to focus votes on fewer candidates and widen its majority in the enlarged 225-seat Yuan legislature to 10 from just 2.

The KMT's biggest coup, however, was to snatch the mayoralty of Taipei back from the Democratic Progressive Party. The brash, pro-independence incumbent, Chen Shui-bian, lost despite approval ratings of 70% as national issues predominated. In ousting Chen by a 51% to 46% margin, the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, a former Justice Minister, dented Chen's plans to run for the presidency in 2000.

At first blush, Ma's victory seems to be a setback for Taiwan's burgeoning independence movement, which causes friction with Beijing. But that appearance is deceptive. Chen's defeat doesn't signal any real decline of independence sentiments in Taiwan. Although beaten in Taipei, Chen is still very popular in other areas. And without a job, he is now free to start campaigning for 2000, provided he can rally the DPP around his candidacy. Besides, President Lee Teng-hui's KMT is cool toward reunification.

Moreover, Ma was eased into office by an extraordinary maneuver of the pro-China New Party, which favors reunification. Two days before voting, it effectively told supporters to vote for Ma. The party, which had polled 9% a week before the elections, ended up with only 3%. "There was a wholesale shift of supporters from the New Party to the KMT," says Chu Yun-han, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

BIG CHALLENGES. President Lee, another of Beijing's bugaboos, also was a big help. Lee is not close to Ma and had earlier seemed lukewarm toward his candidacy, but in the closing days of the campaign offered him strong public backing. Lee's family is from Taiwan, unlike Ma's, which was exiled from the mainland in 1949. His support bolstered Ma's claim to be a "New Taiwanese" and gave Taipei's middle-class Taiwanese a reason to vote for the KMT.

The KMT's success shows voters favor stability over ideology, which pleases Beijing. But KMT leaders still face big challenges, such as a looming fratricidal rift inside the party. Mainlander James Soong, who will step down soon as Taiwan provincial governor, is certain to challenge Vice-President Lien Chan, a Taiwanese and Lee loyalist, for the presidential nomination.

With so much political turmoil in Taiwan, Beijing needs to temper whatever joy it feels at Chen's defeat. And the New Party's islandwide rout shows how few takers there are for its ideas. "It would be unwise for Beijing and Washington to throw away their aspirin. The headaches will continue," says Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University political scientist.

Worse yet from Beijing's standpoint is the vibrancy of the democracy that has taken root in the decade since Taiwan abandoned police-state rule. During the campaign, voters argued, candidates debated, and the media covered it all.

With each election, Taiwan takes another step away from China, which is again clamping down on its own pro-democracy dissidents. The huge 80% turnout of voters in Taipei and 60% elsewhere on the island shows how far Beijing still has to move to win over the people of Taiwan.

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