Taiwan ruling party in tatters

Nationalists protest, party leader resigns after election defeat

March 20, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- One day after its humiliating defeat at the polls, Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party fell into disarray with President Lee Teng-hui resigning its leadership as thousands of angry members attacked party headquarters with rocks and eggs.

Shouting "Step down, Lee Teng-hui! Resign!" and waving red-white-and-blue national flags, demonstrators faced off against police armed with shields, clubs and water cannons in the center of the capital.

"I'm still angry," yelled an elderly woman as she glared at riot police defending the gray stone building that houses the Nationalist Party headquarters and waved her party identification card furiously. "He's harmed us. I want him to see it!"

Demonstrators smashed the windows of limousines bringing party members to the building for an emergency meeting with Lee. Some chased senior party adviser Hsu Li-teh down the sidewalk, kicking, punching and beating him with poles. They knocked him to the ground, but he was able to run into the building.

The public outburst followed Saturday's presidential election in which the Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT), who have ruled Taiwan for more than five decades, garnered less than a quarter of the votes. Demonstrators accused Lee yesterday of splitting the party and secretly supporting opposition candidate and eventual winner Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

As the day progressed, the fortunes of the KMT worsened. Former party leader James Soong, who finished a close second in the presidential race running as an independent, announced plans to create a rival party. And one of the Nationalist Party's brightest stars, dashing Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, announced that he was leaving the party's central committee.

The Nationalists lost the presidency for many reasons, but critical to their defeat was a failure to stop rampant graft, which had left citizens disillusioned. China followed the race closely because it opposed Chen, whose party supports independence from the mainland.

Beijing has viewed Taiwan as a wayward province since Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek arrived here in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war. China has threatened to take Taiwan back by force if necessary.

In the week before the election, Beijing took sides in the race and warned Taiwanese that voting for Chen could eventually provoke war. Some observers say China should learn from the Nationalists' loss, because it provides a preview of what lies in store if the Communists continue to resist political reform and democracy.

"My advice to Beijing is to look at the KMT's downfall," said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "It's a mirror of your political future."

In the past week, many voters turned to Soong and Chen because they couldn't stomach supporting the Kuomintang and its lackluster candidate, Lien Chan.

"There is no one in the party to lead the reform," said Tony Tsao, 37, a businessman from Taipei who left the KMT eight years ago and voted for Soong on Saturday.

Beijing faces similar public fury over graft and a similar frustration over the ruling party's failure to control it. As China has developed a market-oriented economy over the past two decades, corruption has seeped into practically every aspect of life and become the single biggest public concern, according to opinion polls.

Despite the Beijing leadership's keen interest in the outcome of Taiwan's election, the mainland did not send reporters to cover it, because the Communist Party did not want to give the Chinese people ideas about demanding democracy for themselves.

"I don't think it's rocket science for people on the mainland and other places to ask: `Well, if they can do it, why can't I?' " said John Bolton, who was observing the elections and serves as senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"This is a refutation of the whole `Asia values' idea," Bolton added, referring to the argument by authoritarian leaders in the region that Asians are far more interested in maintaining a harmonious community than in exercising democracy.

Although the immediate prospects appeared dim last night, the long-term fate of the Nationalists remains unclear. President Lee has said that he won't step down until September, and the party is planning to develop a reform program. Despite the beating it took at the polls, the KMT still has a large majority in the legislature. It also maintains a business empire estimated to be worth as much as $20 billion. But that, of course, is part of the problem.

"I think the Nationalist Party still has a good future if it makes the hard decision to carry out reform that they have promised for a long time," said Parris Chang, a Chen adviser and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies. "They have to get rid of the gangster elements in their party."

Chen, who will be inaugurated as president May 20, spent yesterday visiting government agencies and offering thanks at temples and to his supporters. He avoided any mention of specifics on China, but has invited Chinese leaders to visit Taiwan.

In a deeply symbolic round of political ancestor worship, Chen stood at the grave of Huang Hsin-chieh, an early leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, burning incense and telling the "founding father" of Taiwan's democracy about the "great victory yesterday."

Wire service reports contributed to this article.

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