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National Perspective | International Outlook

Taiwan President Taking a Bad Rap

March 22, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

TAIPEI, Taiwan — As America's 1960 presidential campaign was beginning, President Eisenhower was asked to specify in which decisions of his administration Vice President Richard Nixon had played an influential role.

Eisenhower said he couldn't think of any. "If you give me a week, I might think of one," he told reporters.

With those damning words, Ike set the American standard for a president's undercutting the vice president who tries to succeed him.

Now, in Taiwan, President Lee Teng-hui is being widely accused of the same offense. In the days since the astonishing electoral defeat of Lee's vice president, Lien Chan, and his ruling party, the Kuomintang, the conspiratorial murmuring here has been that they lost largely because Lee abandoned them.

Over the weekend, raucous crowds surrounding the KMT headquarters and the president's home demanded Lee's resignation. He finally agreed to step aside in September.

The angry protesters presented what amounted to a two-count complaint against Taiwan's president.

First, it was said, Lee effectively split the KMT, which had run Taiwan for the last half a century, through a nasty personal feud with James Soong, one of the party's most popular leaders.

Soong, after discovering that he could not obtain the KMT's presidential nomination, left the party and ran an independent campaign. He got 37% of the vote, while Lien, the KMT's candidate, got only 23%.

Most of Soong's supporters came from the traditionalist wing of the KMT. If combined, his and Lien's shares of the vote would have totaled 60%, more than enough to defeat Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party, who won the election with 39%.

Second, Taiwan's president is being charged with secretly wanting the opposition DPP to win the election. Lee, so this argument goes, is an ardent Taiwanese nationalist who sympathizes with the DPP's past support for the cause of independence for Taiwan.

Are these accusations against Lee valid? The first complaint seems legitimate but the second does not.

Certainly, the KMT was devastated by Soong's separate campaign--and Lee (along with Soong himself) bears the prime responsibility. The president was too proud and too imperious to work for party unity. He underestimated Soong's political strength and overestimated his own.

"President Lee's popularity has been in decline," observes Tien Hung-mao of the Institute for National Policy Research, who has served as a close advisor to Lee. "He's not what he was four years ago. He's been subjected to brutal criticism by the newspapers."

But did Lee actually work behind the scenes against Lien and the KMT, his own party?

There's little evidence to support such a charge. The claims seem to be based on the fact that two of Lee's supporters jumped ship and endorsed Chen in the last two weeks of the campaign. Yet there's nothing to indicate that they were doing Lee's bidding.

Lee's record over the last 12 years has been that of a leader increasingly eager to carve out a political status for Taiwan that is separate from the People's Republic of China.

In that sense, the president seems on the surface to be thinking along the same lines as the DPP. Yet the key difference is that Lee always believed he could achieve his goals for Taiwan from inside the rich, powerful KMT, not outside it.

The argument that Taiwan's president wanted his own party to lose ignores what he said and did during this campaign and previous campaigns.

Two years ago, when the DPP's Chen was running for reelection as mayor of Taipei, there were similar charges that the president secretly wanted him to win because Chen was Taiwanese and his opponent, Ma Ying-jeou, was from mainland China. Instead, Lee campaigned vigorously for Ma, who proceeded to win.

In recent months, Lee publicly denounced Chen as unreliable. And he declared that, if the DPP came to power, there would be instability between Taiwan and China.

These don't seem like the actions of a DPP cheerleader. They look more like the actions of a leader who hoped his own KMT would win so that he would retain a degree of power after he was no longer president.

The conspiracy theory of Taiwan's election is too simplistic to bear scrutiny. Chen didn't win because the Taiwan president secretly supported him. Chen won because, after five decades in Taiwan, the KMT was divided, remote and unpopular.

Years from now, Lee will be seen as a transitional figure, a Taiwanese leader who opened the way for democracy and pushed for Taiwan's political separation from China--all within the unlikely and untenable confines of the KMT, the long-repressive party from mainland China.

But this week, Lee Teng-hui looks above all like King Lear, an elderly ruler in decline, doomed to confront the curses and ingratitude of his subjects and offspring. His downfall is the stuff not of conspiracy but of tragedy and pathos.

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