Taiwan tackles change from dictatorship to democracy Independence signified in coming elections for Parliament, president

November 30, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- With his coiffed hair, snazzy clothes and deftly managed call-in show, Lee Tao easily lives up to his unofficial billing as Taiwan's Larry King.

For the past month, he has concentrated his show on Taiwan's imminent parliamentary elections, talking to people about the issues, the broken promises and the money politics that every democracy delights in discussing.

Saturday's vote, however, is more than a routine election.

Instead it marks the start of a four-month period that will transform Taiwanese politics, capping the island's 10-year changeover from dictatorship to full democracy.

Just as significant, the parliamentary elections, as well as

Taiwan's first direct presidential elections in March, are expected to alter relations with mainland China, pushing the two Asian rivals into further confrontation or laying the foundation for long-term reconciliation.

"The upcoming period is the most dangerous time for relations across the Taiwan Straits," said Andy Chang of Tamkang University's Mainland Research Center.

"Afterward, we may see a fundamental shift in relations between Taiwan and mainland China."

Saturday's parliamentary vote will be the second democratic election for Taiwan's Parliament.

Three years ago, the ruling Kuomintang Party won a handy majority over the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors Taiwan's full independence from mainland China.

This year, however, the election is a cliffhanger.

The Kuomintang faces the loss of its parliamentary majority as the DPP is expected to pick up seats.

Meanwhile, a breakaway Kuomintang faction, the pro-unification New Party, is projected to double its seats.

While opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Taiwan -- many people still conditioned by the old days of the Kuomintang dictatorship tend to avoid honest answers -- the election could see the Kuomintang share power for the first time since it fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing China's civil war to the communists.

The communists, who are eager to reunite China by taking control of Taiwan, would be happy if the Kuomintang were forced to share power with the New Party, Mr. Chang said.

Lately the Kuomintang has been seen as drifting toward support of full Taiwanese independence. So Beijing would see a coalition with the New Party as a way to put eventual reunification back on track, he said.

Another scenario, much worse for relations between the two states, would be for the Kuomintang to share power with the DPP.

With the mainland already suspecting the Kuomintang of supporting independence, an alliance with the pro-independence DPP could force China to take some sort of action to prevent Taiwan from going its own way.

Over the summer, China underscored its determination not to let Taiwan slip from its grasp by undertaking a series of missile tests and military maneuvers in the seas around Taiwan.

Paul Godwin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, said the exercises were meant to show that reunification with Taiwan is a "life or death issue for China."

Relations could be further affected in March when Taiwan holds its first democratic presidential elections.

President Lee Teng-hui is supposed to win without too much trouble, but the election could be destabilizing for two reasons, said Dr. Yu Yali, a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

For one, President Lee has been the target of a smear campaign by mainland China's propaganda apparatus, which sees him as a closet traitor.

Although Mr. Lee often speaks in favor of reunification with China, Beijing believes he is really trying to win international recognition for Taiwan's independence, a belief buttressed earlier this year after Mr. Lee attended his college reunion at Cornell University, the first trip ever to the United States by a leader of Taiwan.

Another reason for China's opposition to democratic presidential elections is that it sees the vote itself as a step toward independence, Dr. Yu said.

If Taiwanese residents are choosing their own Parliament and president, then they can argue that for all intents and purposes they are independent from China, even if they don't have a seat in the United Nations or other formal trappings of independence, he said.

Indeed, this has become the new theme of the pro-independence DPP.

Parris H. Chang, a DPP member of Parliament, said his party's new strategy was not to hold a referendum asking the Taiwanese if they wanted independence because the island essentially has it.

"We are independent. We just need the international recognition," Mr. Chang said.

Such talk could provoke a reaction from Beijing, Dr. Yu noted, because China has recently revised its conditions for military intervention in Taiwan, making it easier to justify an invasion.

In the past, China said it would attack if Taiwan declared independence; now its condition is simply that it might attack if Taiwan even acts independently.

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