The impeachment controversy thickens. Politics has descended into name-calling and threats of lawsuits. The currency is slumping, share prices are plummeting and investors are fleeing in droves. The established political order is lining up against the president and threatening to impeach him. But this drama is not unfolding in the Philippines. Taiwan is convulsed by its own political trauma.
The skirmishes began with the election of Mr. Chen Shui-bian, head of the Democratic Progressive Party, as president of Taiwan earlier this year. Mr. Chen’s win ended 55 years of Nationalist Party rule on the island and marked the first time in Chinese history that there had been a peaceful change of government.
Unfortunately, his margin of victory was slim; he was elected with only 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Worse, his party controls only 67 seats in the 220-member legislature. Although they lost the presidential ballot, the Nationalists maintained their grip on that body, holding on to 115 seats. Despite attempts by Mr. Chen to reach out to the opposition — his first prime minister was his predecessor’s defense minister, a respected member of the Nationalist Party — the sniping began almost immediately.
While Mr. Chen enjoys popular support, his party has no previous experience in power. Bureaucratic opposition to the new government’s policies has also contributed to his difficulties. The result has been a series of missteps, resulting in a growing concern over the economy. The government has marked down its forecast for growth in fiscal 2001 by half a percentage point. One measure of the unease is the stock market’s 40 percent fall since Mr. Chen took office; reportedly $10 billion in investments has fled the island since the spring.
Matters came to a head over Mr. Chen’s decision last month to abandon construction of a $5.5 billion nuclear plant. The plant, Taiwan’s fourth, is one-third complete. More important, it was a pet project of the Nationalists. During the campaign, Mr. Chen promised to shut down the facility for safety and environmental reasons. Having made a number of compromises with the opposition during his term in office, Mr. Chen wanted to redeem that pledge to reassure his supporters that he had not abandoned them.
He handled it poorly. Mr. Chen promised the head of the Nationalists that he would consider their views, but immediately after that meeting he unilaterally canceled the project, as if he had intended to offend. The legislature responded with a call to impeach the president. Earlier this week, the legislature passed a bill requiring that any motion to dismiss the president be voted on in public instead of by secret ballot; that would prevent opposition members who might support the president from defecting.
The next step is an impeachment motion, but the Nationalists have not said whether they will proceed. Instead, they have begun jockeying for a compromise to resolve the situation short of impeachment. A senior Nationalist Party official fired the opening salvo, demanding a new Cabinet, with his party as the senior partner, having the right to choose the prime minister and foreign minister as well as control over foreign policy and reunification talks with China.
Mr. Chen is unlikely to give in. The public does not support a recall. Mr. Chen’s popularity has been halved since he first took office, but he is still the most popular among the three leading contenders for the presidency. The opposition is united in its desire to unseat Mr. Chen, but little else. Finally, the DPP could respond with the call for another general election, in the hopes of taking a majority in the legislature.
Taiwan has a history of fractious, bare-knuckle politics. Fist-fights in the legislature are common. It was probably too optimistic to hope that its politicians would respond gracefully and in a mature fashion to a historical transfer of power.
The problem is that Taiwan cannot afford political paralysis. The economy needs confidence and political stability. Neither is on the horizon. Worse, Mr. Chen’s government is viewed with suspicion by the government in Beijing. The communists have been pushing for a resumption of reunification talks, and have made ominous noises about their unwillingness to tolerate a prolonged stalemate. The mainland seems to have extended an olive branch last summer in remarks by Vice Premier Qian Qichen, to which Taiwan has not yet responded. There are a number of reasons for that silence, but the political situation is one of them. Unanimity is not an option for Taiwan; given the stakes, however, political maturity does not seem to be too much to ask.
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