TAINAN, Taiwan - Having endured two weeks of military muscle-flexing by an angry and confused China, Taiwan's voters finally had their say today, flocking to the polls to choose their president for the first time.
The election marks Taiwan's coming of age politically, having changed from dictatorship to democracy in just a decade.
But China has also indicated that the vote could lead to war if it reinforces Taiwan's slow slide toward independence and away from reunification with China.
At the center of today's election and China's worries is incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, the 75-year-old agricultural expert who has quietly turned himself into the island's most popular politician, the man who most Taiwanese see as best able to carry out the almost impossible task of winning as much independence as possible without starting a war with China.
Mr. Lee is so popular that the only real question to be answered when the vote count began tonight (9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time today) is Mr. Lee's margin and what that means for peace in Asia. A four-year term seemed guaranteed.
Under Taiwan's new democratic system, the president is elected directly by the people. He in turn appoints a prime minister with the consent of a parliament. Taiwan has already held direct elections for Parliament and local leaders.
China would like Mr. Lee to win less than 50 percent of the popular vote, but he has campaigned feverishly for the landslide that will give him greater stature when dealing with Beijing.
Some analysts worry, however, that too strong a showing will lead Mr. Lee to spurn compromise and take a tough line with China. A weak showing, by contrast, could be equally destabilizing, giving China a signal that it can continue bullying the island of 21 million off the coast of China.
China's efforts to influence the election militarily began two weeks ago with a series of missile exercises in international waters off Taiwan's two biggest ports. Designed to show that China can block Taiwan's ports, the missiles have been followed by air, land and sea exercises, scheduled to continue until Monday.
In response, the United States has sent two aircraft carrier groups to the western Pacific in hopes of calming jittery Taiwan, showing Washington's support for democracy and warning China not to launch an attack on a democracy.
But China has been incensed by this show of support for Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, saying the United States is meddling in its internal affairs. The two countries are in the midst of their most serious military standoff in decades.
"Uncle Sam is up to his old tricks again," said the Defense Daily, a Chinese military publication, in an article yesterday on the expected arrival of the carrier Nimitz in waters near Taiwan this weekend.
"To carry out its power politics and further its hegemonism, Uncle Sam will commit any betrayal of the world's hopes for peace and trample on any international law or rule," it said.
Despite these geopolitical machinations, voters seemed unperturbed. At a polling station in Tainan several voters said they supported President Lee. "He's done a pretty good job and the competition is so weak," said a 56-year-old housewife.
Others in this pro-independence stronghold disagreed.
"He's been in power now already for eight years. Democracy means changing leaders, so I want him out," said a 33-year-old truck driver.
Here in the heart of Taiwanese nationalism, Mr. Lee has made great inroads in attracting voters away from the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors Taiwan's independence from China.
"We know that President Lee favors independence but is just too clever to say it out loud," said Chen Chi-shang, a vendor at Tainan's famous night market. "We need to encourage President Lee so he can stand up to the Chinese Communists."
Mr. Lee is already doing a fair job of standing up to China. Yesterday, he blasted Beijing for trying to damage Taiwan's democracy.
"We are voting for president and you [Beijing] are holding war games to disrupt [our elections]," Mr. Lee told a campaign rally in nearby Kaohsiung. "This has not worked."
Turnout was expected to be 70 percent, high in comparison with the United States but only average compared to previous elections here. Among the voters will be 6,000 Taiwanese living in the United States who are flying back for the election. About 300,000 Taiwanese live in the United States.
What the returning U.S. residents see may remind them of
American democracy, especially the mudslinging aspect of that
Mr. Lee has been charged with being a Communist when he was a university student, while DPP candidate, Peng Ming-min, has been said to have lost an arm in a fight with gangsters. A university professor, the 72-year-old Mr. Peng says he lost his arm in a World War II air raid.
Although Mr. Peng was not expected to do well, his supporters rallied huge crowds in Tainan and throughout the south. Hundreds of supporters marched through Tainan last night, carrying torches and shouting out the professor's name in the local dialect.
Another candidate, Buddhist Chen Lu-an, was even charged with having an affair with a woman who taught him scriptures. The candidates of the fourth party, the New Party, are said to be working for China because they favor speedier reunification with China than President Lee.
Pub Date: 3/23/96