Will Taiwan Vote To Cool Down Tensions?

It's one of the roughest presidential campaigns Taiwan has ever seen. Wild accusations of everything from corruption to wife-beating are flying, as incumbent President Chen Shui-bian faces a challenge from opposition candidate Lien Chan, chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that dominated the island's politics until Chen's election four years ago. At stake is whether Chen, who makes little secret of his desire to declare Taiwan an independent country, will win another four year term -- and spark further tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The outcome of the Mar. 20 race is too close to call. But Taiwan watchers from Beijing to Washington are quietly rooting for a Lien victory. He opposes any radical changes to the status quo and thus is much more acceptable to China's leaders. As President, Lien would probably put on the back burner any plans to revise Taiwan's constitution or hold a referendum on the island's status. He has even talked about a pre-inauguration trip to the mainland, avoiding sovereignty issues by traveling as KMT chairman, not as a government official.

A cross-strait détente would also cheer Taiwanese business execs, who have long wanted better relations between the two sides. Even though political relations are on hold because of Beijing's dislike of Chen, economic ties have been growing closer. Cross-strait trade rose 24% last year, to $46 billion, with Taiwan's exports to the mainland up 20% and imports from China rising 38%. "Businessmen will be happy" with a Lien victory, says Wu Rong-i, president of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, a think tank in Taipei. "He says we should make peace with China and use the Chinese market."

As the vote approaches, the race is a virtual dead heat. The patrician Lien, who finished third in 2000, lacks Chen's common touch. But his defeat in 2000 was largely because of a split in the KMT, with rival James Soong bolting the party to run himself. Now, Lien and Soong have papered over their differences and are running mates on the KMT ticket.

A Rebounding Economy

Still, nobody counts Chen out. He has a revved-up constituency of pro-independence supporters of his Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, led by former President Lee Teng-hui. Chen also presides over a rebounding economy. While the SARS outbreak slowed growth last year to 3.2%, for the fourth quarter it topped 5%.

For Washington and Beijing alike, the worst-case scenario is a Chen victory that emboldens his supporters to push for a formal independence declaration. No wonder the Bush Administration has cautioned Chen about upsetting the status quo. And unlike 2000, when China's then-Premier Zhu Rongji furiously warned Taiwanese voters not to support Chen, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are keeping their rhetoric tame to avoid a pro-Chen backlash and thus give the KMT an edge. "If [Lien] wins the election, they will slow the speed toward independence," predicts Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University. Slow, but probably not stop. For any politician in Taiwan, the pro-independence movement will remain a force to contend with. Even a Lien presidency will find cross-strait relations the No. 1 challenge.

By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong, with Dexter Roberts in Shanghai

— With assistance by Dexter Roberts

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