Taiwan election is setback for president

Voters withhold majority for his allies, signal doubt about stance with China

December 12, 2004|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HONG KONG - Taiwanese voters rejected President Chen Shui-bian's aggressive approach to managing relations with China by not giving his party and its allies a majority in legislative elections yesterday.

The stunning defeat for Chen's forces, which opinion polls had not predicted, is certain to lead to a reappraisal of the pace at which the president wants to carve out a national identity for Taiwan that is independent from China's.

The results are certain to please China's leaders, who distrust Chen's intentions and have never renounced the threat to invade Taiwan should the island declare itself independent.

Slim lead for opposition

Early results indicated that the three opposition parties, led by the Nationalists, won a two-seat majority, taking 114 of 225 seats. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, along with its even more independent-minded partner, Taiwan Solidarity Union, fell far short.

For years Taiwan has been developing its own political and economic culture, slowly pulling further and further away from the orbit of Communist China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province that must eventually return to the fold.

Chen, who was re-elected in March, has continually and at times provocatively pressed his agenda for promoting separateness, and he sought a clearer mandate in yesterday's election.

But as much as the Taiwanese are proud of their identity as a thriving democracy and economic tiger, they are also aware of the dragon at their doorstep and do not want to stir China's wrath. China test-fired a series of missiles in Taiwan's direction in 1995 and 1996 after President Lee Teng-hui made provocative remarks about Taiwan's identity while on an unofficial visit to the United States.

"Today we saw extremely clearly that all the people want stability in this country and want to continue to develop," Lien Chan, leader of the Nationalists, said last night in claiming victory.

The relationship between China and Taiwan is exceedingly complex and volatile. While they share a common history and are intermingled economically, they are also arch-rivals.

Both sides were part of the Nationalist-run Republic of China until the Communists won the civil war in 1949 and the Nationalists retreated offshore to Taiwan.

Because Beijing considers Taiwan a territory that must eventually return, Taipei keeps its identity somewhat under wraps. Officially, it remains the Republic of China, and China has threatened to attack if the name is changed to Taiwan.

Signs of identity

Chen has promised to keep the name, flag and anthem, and he says he will not declare independence unless China attacks. But he has moved aggressively within those limits to distinguish Taiwan.

Under Chen, the island has added "Taiwan" to Republic of China passports, and he wants to revise the constitution, which he says is a relic of the days before 1949.

At the height of the legislative campaign last week, Chen proposed that major government entities, including Taiwan's overseas offices and state airline, change their names to replace confusing references to China with Taiwan. The island has a carrier called China Airlines; Beijing runs Air China. Beijing considers such moves subtle steps toward declaring independence.

Washington also criticized the proposed name changes, saying that they threatened to upset the delicate diplomatic status quo. The president of China Airlines said changing the name was impractical because it would require renegotiation of landing rights.

While all political parties at least pay lip service to the idea of promoting Taiwanese identity, Chen's foes have moved much more slowly and have a better relationship with Beijing.

The defeat for the president now makes it harder for him to maneuver.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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