All eyes watch Taiwan's election

Some voters swayed by China's threats, but many undeterred

March 18, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The result of today's presidential election in Taiwan will reverberate from Beijing to Washington, but it will be decided by people like Huang Wen-ying, a 41-year-old mother from the central city of Taichung.

Until several days ago, she was among the group of undecided voters who analysts say are critical to winning a three-way presidential race that recent polls show is too close to call. Huang had been leaning toward Chen Shui-bian, a popular reformer whose opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has infuriated China by advocating independence from the mainland.

On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji angrily warned Taiwanese not to vote for Chen, saying: "You won't get another opportunity to regret."

Worried about Taiwan's security, Huang has decided to back the solid, but largely colorless Lien Chan, nominee of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, which has been in power for the past five decades.

"I don't know what Chen Shui-bian will do if he is elected," said Huang, appearing anguished as she tried to explain her decision yesterday before boarding a train back home to vote. "It's like a time bomb. I would prefer the Kuomintang at the negotiating table with their experience."

As Taiwanese go to the polls today, leaders in the United States and across East Asia watch closely. Of all the issues dividing the world's most powerful country and its most populous one, none is more dangerous than the future of this island of 22 million people.

Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a rebel province since Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek retreated here in defeat at the end of the Chinese Civil War 50 years ago. Earlier this week, Premier Zhu reiterated the mainland's willingness to "shed blood" to reunify with the island, whose people generally regard China's Communist leaders as narrow-minded thugs.

China might have absorbed Taiwan by now were it not for the United States, an old friend of the

Nationalist regime and has pledged -- albeit ambiguously -- to defend Taiwan if China attacks. During the last presidential election in 1996, China tried to intimidate Taiwanese into voting against incumbent President Lee Teng-hui by firing missiles toward the island.

The plan backfired. The United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups as a show of support, and voters rallied around Lee, handing him a landslide victory.

In the run-up to this year's election, the three leading candidates have been more conciliatory. Each has tried to persuade voters he is best qualified to handle the cross-strait relationship.

Lien, 63, the nation's vice president, has pledged to ease bans on direct postal, trade and transport links with China. Independent candidate James Soong, perceived as being closest to the mainland, has suggested a 30-year peace treaty and eventually developing a relationship resembling the European Union.

Chen, who sometimes shouts "Long live Taiwan independence" at rallies, has vowed not to actually declare independence or hold a referendum on the matter.

Many analysts believe that with Chen in power, though, Taiwan would quicken its drift away from reunification and increase the risk of a military confrontation with China.

"You have Beijing constantly sending messages," said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council on Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "How can you possibly believe they won't use force?"

But today's election is not just about relations with Beijing. It is also about visceral domestic issues, such as graft and democracy,

and that is one reason why many believe Chen has a good chance of winning.

Chen, 49, the former mayor of Taipei, has attracted widespread support because people see him as an energetic outsider who can clean up the Nationalist Party's system of institutionalized corruption. Many also view him as a symbol of long overdue change in a once-repressive political environment which the Nationalists have dominated for half a century.

"It's important to rotate political parties," said Lan Rong-shiang, a 27-year-old insurance salesman from the northern city of Keelung. "I don't think the rhetoric from Mainland China will influence me. An election is our own business."

Indeed, as threats from outside have increased this week, Chen has appeared to gain some momentum. On Monday, Lee Yuan-tseh, an influential Nobel laureate, resigned his job as director of the nation's top research institution, the Academia Sinica, and threw his support behind Chen.

And while the other candidates have drawn big numbers, Chen's rallies have been particularly large and boisterous. On Sunday, he attracted more than 100,000 in Kaohsiung, a southern port city and DPP stronghold.

Taiwan, which has only emerged from authoritarianism in the past decade, has developed a raucous political culture. Campaign rallies are enormously entertaining events which -- at their best -- feel like the Fourth of July, New Year's Eve and a rock concert wrapped into one.

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