Taiwan's voters burdened by choices Polls reflect uncertainty over independence issue

March 18, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAICHUNG, Taiwan - Hung Ch'ien-lai breaks into a grin and slaps the side of his motor scooter when asked about Saturday's elections.

There, newly plastered over a sticker calling for Taiwanese independence, is a picture of President Lee Teng-hui, his lopsided grin a mirror of Mr. Hung's own jaunty defiance of China's military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

"The military exercises made me change my mind about President Lee," Mr. Hung said. "I still favor independence, but we must send a message to the mainland that we are united behind President Lee. It's the only way we Taiwanese can stand up to their bullying."

Not all Taiwanese share Mr. Hung's newfound enthusiasm for Mr. Lee. Some say they are losing confidence in his handling of the crisis and want negotiations with the mainland, while others go to the opposite extreme, saying full-fledged independence is now the only option.

However, one thing is certain: With five days to go before the election, voters are more uncertain than ever. The most recent poll shows a surprising 60 percent undecided, up from 45 percent before the exercises began.

"If one of China's goals in launching the military exercises was to create uncertainty, it seems to have succeeded," said Andy W. Chang, associate professor of Chinese studies at Tamkang University.

Voters seem to realize that the election could set their island's course for the future, leading to closer, friendly relations or ruinous economic and military conflict with the mainland. That might account for the high proportion of undecided voters, said Tim T. Y. Ting, chief consultant for Gallup Taiwan, a public opinion research company.

"President Lee is set to win, but the question is by how much," Mr. Ting said. "You see some voters questioning his policies, but others want to support him so he gets a big margin."

Cutting Mr. Lee's margin is widely believed to be a reason China is conducting the exercises, a new round of which begin today. China views Mr. Lee as a closet separatist who wants to lead the island to full, formal independence.

The government on Taiwan, which lost China's civil war nearly 50 years ago, believes it is the true, legitimate government of all of China, instead of Beijing's Communist rulers, and is not officially seeking independence for Taiwan.

Personalities seem to be playing an unusually large role in the election, Dr. Chang said. While the candidates have tried to distinguish their policies from each other's, Taiwan's precarious international position means the parties must follow basically the same path of balancing reunification and popular desire for some sort of independence or international recognition, he said.

"In fact, our policies are not so different," conceded Hsu Hsin-liang, former chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. "We feel that Taiwan is already independent; the question is how to get that formalized by the international community."

Such talk fuels China's military exercises. Even though Mr. Lee continues to say, as did his predecessors, that he is for reunification, the fact that pro-independence parties can find little to say against him speaks volumes to sensitive Beijing.

While most Taiwanese support Mr. Lee's middle-of-the-road policy, many wonder if his credibility problem with China is of his own making. Part of the reason for the exercises, they feel, is that Mr. Lee has needlessly antagonized the mainland.

"The man has a loose tongue," said Jesse Chiang, a restaurant owner in the Pescadores islands. "He insults the mainland and gets us into trouble."

Indeed, Mr. Lee liberally peppers his campaign speeches with insults of mainland China, recently calling the Communists "blockheads."

"Many people think Lee Teng-hui is confusing the candidate with the president," said Yu Yali, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. "He needs votes, but many think he's a bit reckless, especially at such a sensitive time."

Mr. Lee has in some ways boxed himself into a corner, being forced to score populist points because he has set a goal of winning 50 percent of the vote in order to have a strong mandate to deal with the mainland the very 50 percent benchmark the mainland would like to deny him through the exercises.

Although Mr. Lee has broad backing, the votes will be split among four candidates: Mr. Lee, the pro-independence DPP, the more conciliatory New Party and an independent Buddhist candidate.

Middle-class voters may be especially uneasy with his populist rhetoric, Dr. Yu said. China's first wave of exercises consolidated support for the president, but the subsequent rounds have made some people nervous, he said, especially as they have seen panic buying of dollars and a bruised stock market.

"You find the middle class worried," Dr. Yu said. "But the question is who you can vote for instead of him."

As genuinely popular a figure as Mr. Lee is, he is also fortunate to have weak opponents.

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