Taiwan party softens call for independence

Charter amended in move toward political center


BEIJING -- Reaching for the political center as it prepares for a presidential election, Taiwan's main opposition party is softening its call for formal independence from China, once its defining trait.

The popular former mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian, is the party's likely candidate in the election next March, which will be Taiwan's second direct election for president. But to have any chance of winning, his Democratic Progressive Party must reassure voters that it will not provoke a dangerous confrontation with China, which considers the island an errant province.

At a party congress this weekend, a new statement will be added to the party's charter. It is intended to signal that, if given national power, the Democratic Progressives would not take precipitous action -- such as calling a plebiscite on the island's status or officially adopting "Republic of Taiwan" as a national name -- that could shake the prosperity and de facto independence Taiwan now enjoys.

A draft of the statement was adopted by a committee yesterday for final approval Sunday.

But in a sign that independence sentiment remains deep among core supporters, the charter will not be overhauled as sweepingly as Chen and others had wanted.

The draft statement says the status quo is acceptable only because Taiwan is in effect already sovereign, and it pointedly rejects the concept of "one China" cherished by the mainland.

"This should give Chen Shui-bian what he needs to show that the party is not to be feared," said Fu-Hsiung Shen, a legislator and close Chen ally. "But any deeper change would create another hazard: People would say the party sold its soul."

With popular President Lee Teng-hui, who must step down next year after his four-year term, the Nationalist Party still has the broadest public support and strongest organization, but it could suffer a catastrophic split.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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