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Taiwan's ruling party dodges an electoral bullet

The local voting boosts President Chen: His DPP wins no mandate, but neither was it drubbed as expected.

December 10, 2006|Mark Magnier and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

TAIPEI — Taiwan's ruling party defied expectations that it would be trounced in local elections Saturday, handing President Chen Shui-bian some breathing room after months of fighting off scandals. But the mixed results probably will result in continued political infighting at least through the 2008 presidential election, analysts said.

In the two most closely watched races, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party narrowly won the mayoral race in the city of Kaohsiung and the opposition Nationalists won handily in Taipei.

The elections were seen as a referendum on Chen, who has been battling corruption-related allegations for six months. Chen's wife and three former aides were indicted last month on charges of embezzling $450,000 from a national affairs fund under presidential control. The prosecutor said Chen could face the same charges when his term -- and presidential immunity -- ends.

The Kaohsiung victory boosted morale in the president's office: Pundits and opinion polls had predicted a humiliating loss for candidate Chen Chu. The results also bolstered the party's reputation for running excellent grass-roots campaigns.

"This has been the most difficult election for the DPP," party Chairman Yu Shyi-kun said. "Nobody believed we could win."

But the narrow victory margin could prompt a recount. Chen Chu (not related to the president) won the mayor's seat by just 1,120 of 800,000 votes cast.

The Kaohsiung race was marred by voting fraud allegations, which are not unusual in local Taiwan elections, though both parties have tried to clean up the process in recent years.

The ruling party claimed that campaign workers for the Nationalists distributed envelopes containing the equivalent of $31 to bus passengers returning from an election rally late Friday. The Nationalists have denied wrongdoing.

In Taipei, Hau Lung-bin of the Nationalists defeated his ruling-party rival by about 13 percentage points.

"I voted for the Nationalists because the ruling party has been too corrupt," said cosmetologist Hsu Yen-ling, 44. "It's time to bring the opposition back into power."

But Nationalists' defeat in Kaohsiung denied their party the sort of mandate they had hoped for heading into legislative elections in 2007 and the presidential race. Party Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, Nationalists' expected presidential candidate, has pledged to shake 7,000 voters' hands a day, and reportedly had assistants count them, perhaps as practice for 2008.

"Ma campaigned very hard, but it is obvious his style is not appreciated by voters here in the south," said Liao Da-chi, a political science professor at Kaohsiung-based National Sun Yat-sen University.

Analysts said a lame-duck president and a divided electorate almost guaranteed that Taiwan would continue to muddle along politically for the foreseeable future.

"There isn't enough pressure on the president to step down, so the current situation will continue," said Philip Y.M. Yang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. "We probably won't see much getting done in the next one or two years."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Magnier reported from Beijing and Tsai from Taipei.

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