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NEW ERA IN TAIWAN

Nationalists Ousted in Taiwan

Pro-Independence Leader Wins Presidency

Vote: In speech, however, Chen Shui-bian calls for reconciliation with China. His victory puts ties with Beijing, U.S. on new ground.

March 19, 2000|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In a stunning shake-up, voters toppled one of the world's longest-ruling political dynasties Saturday and put this tiny island on a potential collision course with China by electing a new president who has advocated Taiwanese independence from the mainland.

Opposition party nominee Chen Shui-bian's narrow victory, with 39% of the vote, also thrust Taiwan, China and the U.S. into uncharted territory when it comes to managing their thorny triangular relationship.

At the same time, Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party--the Kuomintang, or KMT--was dealt a serious blow by the populace it has governed for 51 years. The KMT candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, ended in a humiliating third place with 23% of the tally, behind Chen and independent candidate James Soong, who received 37%.

Despite being forced to give up the presidency for the first time, however, the KMT still controls Taiwan's legislature, meaning that Chen, 49, will take office in May with much less power than his predecessors, and casting doubt on the prospects for his populist agenda.

The president-elect, who belongs to the Democratic Progressive Party, immediately reached out to his vanquished rivals, his new constituents and his biggest adversary, Beijing, which considers Taiwan a rebel province and views Chen as practically a traitor.

"Before my inauguration, I hope to make a journey of reconciliation to China," Chen told a packed news conference Saturday night, obviously conscious of history being made. Outside his party's headquarters, a jubilant sea of supporters cheered, honked horns and waved flags in a deafening show of acclaim.

"Our goal is reconciliation with good intentions, active cooperation and everlasting peace," he said.

In a retreat from his previous support of a complete break from the mainland, Chen has promised not to declare independence unilaterally.

But he explicitly rejected the "one country, two systems" formula that Beijing has used in resuming control of Hong Kong and Macao.

"Most Taiwan residents cannot accept 'one country, two systems.' We do not want to become a second Hong Kong, a second Macao," he said.

The reaction to Chen's victory in Beijing was muted, in stark contrast to the Communist government's bellicose rhetoric leading up to the election--including a blunt warning to Taiwan's voters from Premier Zhu Rongji to steer clear of Chen.

"Regardless of who comes to power, the fact that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory cannot be changed," the Central Party Committee said in a statement read out on the nightly national newscast and reprinted on the front pages of today's major newspapers. "We will listen to what the new leader says, observe what he does, and wait and see."

Analysts said they expect the regime to stay relatively quiet so as not to antagonize Washington at a time when China's trade status is up for debate on Capitol Hill--and in order to give Beijing some time to figure out what to do about its nightmare come true.

"This is what the mainland government was afraid of and worried about most," said Chu Shulong, a scholar of international relations at an influential think tank in Beijing. "[But] I don't think the mainland will take any serious action soon. The fundamental attitude the mainland government will take is wait and see."

Chu said Beijing will probably wait at least a few months to determine whether Chen not only has turned his back on independence but also is willing to talk about reunification.

Then, if the issue remained stalled and Chen did something provocative, "there would be some action," Chu predicted. "Rhetoric would not be enough. All the words they can say have been said."

Those words included a warning to Taipei last month not to risk war by delaying reunification "indefinitely" and Zhu's assertion that China would "shed blood" before allowing Taiwan to go its own way.

But such scare tactics backfired among some voters here, much as China's firing of missiles during the first direct presidential election, in 1996, caused even more Taiwanese to vote for incumbent President Lee Teng-hui in direct defiance of Beijing. Nearly 83% of the island's 15 million voters turned out Saturday.

"We can't always be afraid of the mainland. We need to stand up to them," said 39-year-old Tseng Yu-fang, who decided to support Chen after hearing Zhu's remarks. "They keep calling us one of their provinces, but we're not. It's time to pull the mask off."

Chen's election throws another wild card into the already unpredictable relationship among Taiwan, China and the U.S.

In Washington, President Clinton congratulated Chen and said the U.S. "is committed to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region."

Clinton reiterated his support of the "one China" principle that has governed U.S. policy toward Taiwan for years, creating a delicate balance that some fear Chen might upset.

It is the very democracy that the U.S. has encouraged on this island that has made such a worrisome prospect possible.

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