Taiwanese voters face pivotal election Today's contests to define province's political future, relations with China


HONG KONG -- Fifteen million Taiwanese voters go to the polls today in an election that could shape both the future of

Taiwanese politics and the breakaway province's relations with mainland China.

At stake are all 225 seats in the national legislature, mayoral posts in Taiwan's two biggest cities and city council slots. If the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) regains the mayor's office in the capital of Taipei and strengthens its slim majority in the legislature, it will consolidate its 49-year hold on power and continue its slow warming of relations with Beijing.

But if the 10-year-old opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) keeps the Taipei mayoralty and increases its seats in the legislature, it would pose an increasing threat to KMT rule.

It also would signal growing pro-independence sentiment in a de facto nation that China has considered a "renegade province" ever since fleeing KMT officials set up a government in exile in Taipei in 1949.

Gone is the high drama of Taiwan's first direct presidential elections in 19965, when an angry China fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait and the United States sent aircraft carriers to the area to cool tempers. But this election campaign has been colorful.

Bizarre gimmicks such as a striptease, superhero costumes, and a bicycle rally have dominated the campaign, and personalities have overshadowed issues. Even restrained President Lee Teng-hui, 75, joined in the carnival dressed on occasions as King Arthur, a tribal chieftain, and a baseball team captain.

But the raucous campaign also reveals the liveliness of Taiwan's democracy -- one of the newest and freest in Asia and the first in Chinese history.

"This is proof that Taiwan is a true democratic society. We are a very important window for promoting human rights and democracy in the PRC [People's Republic of China]," said Sisy Chen, former spokeswoman for the DPP and president of the New Rising People Foundation. "It is impossible to push Taiwan back to PRC authoritarianism."

Ethnic politics has become a main theme. Candidates have battled to prove their "Taiwanese-ness" and loyalty to Taiwan over China, underscoring the emergence of a uniquely Taiwanese identity in a tiny island-state.

The elections, therefore, carry significance not only for the future of domestic politics, but also for the chances and desire for a peaceful reunification of Taiwan and China -- perhaps under the "one country, two systems" model adopted for capitalist Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule.

The marquee race has been for mayor of Taipei. The ruling party's Ma Ying-jeou, a former justice minister and Harvard Law School graduate, is challenging the charismatic incumbent Chen Shui-bian, the star of the populist DPP, who worked his way through a Taiwanese law school and promotes his native ancestry against Ma's mainland roots.

Ma can barely speak Taiwanese, but President Lee -- a native Taiwanese -- defended his party colleague this week, declaring, "We are all new Taiwanese, whether our ancestors came here 400 or 500 years ago, or 40 or 50 years ago."

Eighty percent of people in Taiwan are considered native Taiwanese, while 20 percent fled the mainland in 1949 or are descended from those who did.

Polls consistently show that Taiwanese identity and independence sentiment are "defensive ideologies" that people adopt if they feel threatened.

This past summer, for example, after President Clinton announced in China that the United States does not favor Taiwan's independence, support in Taiwan for independence rose.

But according to New Rising People Foundation surveys, only about 30 percent of people want a vote on independence under any circumstances. Some 80 percent would support a referendum if the United States and China were to demand that Taiwan accept reunification under a "one country, two systems" model.

Whoever wins will maintain a cautious course with Beijing.

DPP leaders feel that they do not need to declare independence because Taiwan is already separate from China. For the KMT, though, Taiwan must wait for China to become more democratic before the two sides can reunite as West Germany and East Germany did.

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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