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NEW ERA IN TAIWAN

Excitement Over Upset by 'Native Son'

Reaction: Chen's victory 'represents the dissatisfaction' people felt with long-ruling Nationalists, one man says.

March 19, 2000|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The night sky was dark, and the clouds were spitting rain, but for Cheng Tien-kui, it was already a brand-new day.

"This is a historic event," Cheng said late Saturday as he celebrated opposition party candidate Chen Shui-bian's victory in Taiwan's second direct presidential election.

"Chen Shui-bian is a native son who represents the Taiwanese people's hopes," said Cheng, his baseball cap embroidered with Chen's nickname, A-bian. "A new era has begun."

Across this island Saturday, excitement about Chen's win, and the end of the long domination of the ruling Nationalist Party, was palpable.

With all ballots counted in a wide-open contest, the official Nationalist nominee, Vice President Lien Chan, had mustered only 23% support and come in dead last among the three major contenders, heralding a sea change in Taiwan's political landscape. For the first time in 51 years, a non-Nationalist candidate will take the oath of office May 20 and occupy the imposing presidential mansion in downtown Taipei as the top leader of this island of 22 million people.

Not bad for a man who once spent time in jail for crossing a Nationalist Party stalwart. It was a narrow win for Chen but one long in coming, Cheng said.

"A-bian represents the dissatisfaction the Taiwanese people have with the status quo, with the Kuomintang [Nationalists] being in power for so long," said Cheng, 60. "This should teach the KMT a lesson."

That was a sentiment expressed by many residents, whether they cast their vote for Chen or for second-place candidate James Soong, who quit the KMT to run as an independent.

Men and women. Urbanites and rural dwellers. Old and young.

But especially the young, who found an outlet for their rebellion by flocking to Chen, 49, the popular former mayor of Taipei known for such stunts as dressing up as Superman or throwing citywide disco parties. The under-30 set rooted loudly and passionately for the man who took on the establishment, the outsider who battled a ruling party considered to be as rich as God and as corrupt as the devil.

"For those of us of the younger generation, it's an opportunity to try something new, to let the nation take a new direction," said Tsai Chiung-hui, 20, a college student voting in her first election. "Just like having a new century in 2000. Now we have a new, modern leader."

Or as 27-year-old Sean Lin put it: "As long as it's not Lien, it's fine."

In the end, the incumbent vice president failed to win a single city or county outright, despite the help of the formidable party machinery that has made the Nationalists one of the longest-ruling political dynasties in the world.

And as Chen's vote tally grew--he never relinquished his early lead--so did the number of supporters who massed outside Democratic Progressive Party headquarters here in the capital to scream, cheer and turn a major thoroughfare into an electrifying Chen Shui-bian carnival. Fireworks exploded in the sky, music and speeches blared from giant loudspeakers, vendors sold hot dogs.

By 7 p.m., tens of thousands of Chen supporters had poured into East Minsheng Road. At 7:30, Lien delivered his somber concession speech.

An hour after that, Chen, bowing and beaming, declared victory before a room packed with representatives of the international media.

"The courageous Taiwanese people have used love and hope to overcome darkness and fear," he declared as the glare from a hundred strobe lights bounced off his glasses.

To his right sat his wife, Wu Shu-jen, confined to a wheelchair ever since a truck ran over her in what Chen says was a politically motivated attack in 1985--a year before Chen's opposition party was even allowed to exist. Taiwan did not emerge from under martial law until 1987.

Since then, the island's democracy has flowered relatively peacefully into East Asia's most colorful--a system marked by intrigue, a raucous free press and merchandise of every conceivable kind in support of the major candidates.

Saturday's election sealed that reputation. But it also indicated that democracy is maturing here, despite its still-shallow roots.

Chen may be the man who finally knocked the KMT off its perch, but he can't afford to rest on his laurels. He has campaign promises to keep: an end to corruption, a dialogue with mainland China, a fairer distribution of wealth.

"The pressure on A-bian is huge," Cheng said. "If he doesn't do well, then we'll change presidents again. . . . That's what democracy is about."

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