TAIPEI — Taiwan continues to feel the aftershocks of the political earthquake that hit last Saturday, when Democratic Progressive Party leader Chen Shui-bian’s presidential victory rocked the foundations of party politics on an island that has been ruled by the same party for more than half a century.
The party that the Chen and the DPP ousted, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), has run Taiwan since the end of World War II. The KMT didn’t lift martial law until 1987.
Under the guidance of President Lee Teng-hui, chairman of the KMT, Taiwan started down the road to democracy, holding its first direct presidential election in 1996.
That road has led to a full-fledged democracy — and also to the turmoil that now engulfs the mighty KMT.
Angry protesters have skirmished with riot police outside the party’s headquarters since Sunday, demanding that Lee step down as KMT chairman.
The demonstrators believe that Lee engineered the KMT defeat because he secretly supported the reformist Chen.
Most of the demonstrators are supporters of James Soong, the former KMT heavyweight who was ousted from the party late last year. Soong ran as an independent in the election, finishing a close second to Chen. His supporters hold Lee responsible for denying him the KMT presidential nomination and then forcing him out of the party.
On Sunday, Soong, who has fashioned himself as a populist taking on entrenched parties that are out of touch with the common people, announced that he would create a new party.
The events of the past few days show that Soong remains a force within the KMT, representing the old-guard, Chinese-nationalist side of the party’s increasingly schizophrenic personality. The other side, represented by Lee, is reformist and promotes a Taiwanese identity — not unlike Chen and the DPP.
The rift in the KMT reflects the ethnic divide that has existed in Taiwan ever since the flood of mainlanders arrived in 1949 and imposed their rule with an iron fist. For decades, Taiwanese have resented what they viewed as a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of mainlanders.
This resentment helped give rise to Chen’s DPP, which was founded after martial law was lifted in 1987. Most of the early leaders of the party — Chen being a notable exception — were from fairly well-to-do Taiwanese families who felt the mainlanders had robbed them of their political entitlement. Over the past 13 years, the party has built itself up on a Taiwan-first platform.
Chen, although a product of the Taiwan-first movement spearheaded by the DPP, is also seen as a pragmatist, and this may help him forge the cross-party coalition he will need to govern.
The challenge facing Chen in the national legislature will be enormous. The KMT holds a majority of seats, and with a Lower House election possible shortly before Chen’s inauguration in May, he could find himself also up against a block of legislators from Soong’s new party.
Even before his election on Saturday, Chen was attempting to lay the groundwork for a cross-party alliance by saying he would refrain from participating in party activities if elected.
The responsibility of working with the legislature will fall upon Chen’s premier. That person, if Chen gets his wish, will be Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh, whose endorsement of Chen in the final week of the campaign was seen as a major reason for Chen’s victory. The highly respected scholar is the only person who “can successfully gain cross-party support,” a top Chen aide said.
Chen will have to show some immediate progress on improving relations with China, which views Chen as a radical Taiwan independence figure.
During the campaign, Chen distanced himself from his party’s traditional pro-independence stance, saying he would only declare independence if China attacked. Chen has also said he would not seek to write Lee’s “special state-to-state” formula — which asserts Taiwan’s right to negotiate with China as a sovereign state — into the constitution.
China considers Taiwan a “renegade province,” not a sovereign state, and wants to reunite it with the mainland under the “one country, two systems” model applied to Hong Kong and Macau after they were handed over to Beijing.
Since being elected, Chen has repeated his wish to hold talks in Beijing before his inauguration on May 20. On Monday he called for a “peace summit” with Beijing.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in an apparent response, was quoted by the state-run Xinhua news service as saying that he would welcome dialogue with Taipei, so long as it recognized Beijing’s “one China” principle as a prerequisite for talks.
Chen said that he would discuss the one-China notion, but would not accept it as a precondition for dialog.
In a sign that the pragmatists within the party have the upper hand, the DPP announced on Tuesday that it would consider deleting proindependence language in the party’s charter.
In the end, the historically proindependence DPP might prove to be better suited than the KMT to sit down and hammer out a deal with Beijing.
As Lee Yuan-tseh, who has been tapped to be Chen’s China envoy, suggested following the election: “The Chinese Communist Party was fighting against a corrupt KMT in China [in the 1940s]; and the DPP has also been fighting against the KMT along the path of its development. Someday, if the Chinese Communist Party and DPP sit down for talks, they will find that they have something in common. This will make negotiations easier.”
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