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Nationalism Is Changing the Face of Taiwan Politics

December 12, 1986|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — Su Chin, who is 32 and seven months pregnant, sat over dinner in the back room of her Taiwanese family's storefront home here the other day and explained why her husband, a local surgeon, was taking time off from work to run for political office.

"This election is very important for Taiwan's destiny," she said. "Taiwan is changing. Everything is changing here. Our president is maybe feeling not so good, and time is very short. For hundreds of years, Taiwan has been controlled by other big countries. We just don't like being governed by these people from the (Chinese) mainland."

Those sentiments reflect the views of a growing and significant portion of Taiwan's population of 19 million.

Middle-Class Activists

As this island becomes increasingly prosperous and the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) opens the way for a freer, more democratic political climate, a young generation of middle-class activists has begun to press the cause of Taiwanese nationalism with new urgency.

In elections Saturday, candidates of a new Democratic Progressive Party, which challenged the assumption that Taiwan's future is inextricably tied to that of China, rolled up impressive vote totals against the Kuomintang, which came here from the Chinese mainland in 1949.

For the last 37 years, Taiwan law has forbidden the formation of new political parties. But President Chiang Ching-kuo recently announced plans to lift this ban, and the Democratic Progressives, while still technically illegal, were allowed to function as a de facto opposition party in this year's election. The result was a decline in popular support for the Kuomintang.

In past elections, the Kuomintang, which still claims to be the legitimate government for all of China, had polled 70% to 73% of the popular vote. The Nationalists fielded far more candidates than the Democratic Progressives this year, and Kuomintang officials had set the figure of at least 70% of the popular vote as their benchmark of success.

Vote Drops to 66%

Instead, the ruling party's vote dropped to 66% for the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's main lawmaking body, and to 60% for the National Assembly, the government version of an electoral college. Democratic Progressive candidates received approximately 22% of the vote for seats in these forums, and the remainder went to independent candidates.

Of the 44 Democratic Progressive candidates running, 23 were elected. Among them was Su's physician-husband, Dr. Su Pei-Yuan, who won a seat for the Democratic Progressives in the National Assembly from his district in Kaohsiung county.

Democratic Progressive successes were particularly surprising because the new party was formed only 10 weeks ago, and its candidates ran with only a fraction of the money and organization available to the Kuomintang.

In Kaohsiung City, Chang Chung-hsiung, a Democratic Progressive, estimated last week that he would spend about $60,000 in his race for the Legislative Yuan and that each Kuomintang rival would spend at least 10 times as much.

Third Out of 11

Despite his complaints of relative poverty, Chang was elected Saturday and ranked third in the popular vote among the 11 candidates in his district. Another Democratic Progressive candidate came in first.

The Democratic Progressives also ran without access to television or radio. Taiwan's broadcasting media, which are under Kuomintang control, provide no air time for candidate debates, forums, or political advertising.

"We just can't get on television," Daniel Huang, a Democratic Progressive campaign organizer, said a week ago. "To get our message, people have to come to our rallies and hear our speeches. When the weather's bad like it is this week, people have to get out their umbrellas and come out in the rain."

Still, Huang's candidate, Chou Ching-yu, whose husband, Yao Chia-wen, has been in jail for seven years for his role in a 1979 anti-government riot at Kaohsiung, managed to outpoll all Kuomintang candidates and come in first in the balloting for the National Assembly in the city of Taipei.

Despite the hurdles it faced, the new party was carried along by the cause of Taiwanese nationalism and by its ability to exploit some popular resentment of the Kuomintang regime.

'Self-Determination' Urged

Although President Chiang had warned that new parties will not be allowed to advocate independence for Taiwan, the Democratic Progressives' platform skirted the issue by calling for "self-determination" of Taiwan's future by all residents of the island.

Native Taiwanese make up 85% of the island's population, and most of them speak Taiwanese or Hakka dialects rather than, or in addition to, the official Chinese language of Mandarin. The other 15% of the population is made up of so-called "mainlanders" who have been living on Taiwan since the Kuomintang fled here from China at the end of the civil war in 1949.

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