Back in the Game

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DPP candidate Chen Chu speaks to supporters in Kaohsiung after her win in the city's mayoral elections

Supporters of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are celebrating a narrow win in Saturday's mayoral election in the southern port city of Kaohsiung this week. But the greatest exultation over the result may be in the capital, Taipei. The Kaohsiung race had been viewed as a key indicator of whether the corruption scandals involving President Chen Shui-bian and his family had seriously damaged the strength of his party. The DPP's narrow victory indicates that the President, whom many opponents were expecting to step down just a month ago, still has some clout left. "I think that Chen passed a very critical political test," says Emile Sheng, a political science professor at Soochow University and a spokesman for the campaign to oust the president. "The fact that the DPP won this election, it probably means Chen passed the political crisis."

That relief didn't come easy. In Taipei, DPP candidate Frank Hsieh lost the mayoral race to Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hau Lung-bin by about 13%. But Taipei, a KMT stronghold, was a race the DPP was expected to lose. In Kaohsiung, on the other hand, the DPP has held the mayoral seat for the past eight years. DPP candidate Chen Chu, an ex-labor minister and former political prisoner, won by 1,114 votes, just .14% of the total 767,868 ballots cast. She had trailed in opinion polls in the weeks before the election and acknowledged that the corruption allegations involving the President were an obstacle. KMT candidate Huang Jun-ying, a former university official, made corruption a key issue. But he was stung by election eve accusations of vote-buying by his campaign. Huang denied the allegations and demanded a recount; on Sunday a Kaohsiung court approved the request, meaning it could be months before the final outcome is known. Meanwhile, the political tension will likely continue. "The margin was very narrow," says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "The recount has created uncertainty and the opportunity for political confrontation."

For now, the biggest winner is Chen Shui-bian. On Nov. 3, when First Lady Wu Shu-chen and three former presidential aides were indicted on charges of forgery and embezzling $450,000, it looked like the President was all but finished politically. (Prosecutors said they also have enough evidence to charge Chen, although he is protected by presidential immunity while in office.) But in subsequent weeks Chen's supporters rallied to his side, defeating a recall motion in the legislature that would have triggered a national referendum on his ouster. They also shone the spotlight on his biggest rival, outgoing Taipei Mayor and KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou, a likely 2008 presidential candidate. Following demands for an investigation by DPP lawmakers, Ma was forced to admit to bookkeeping problems regarding his mayoral expense account, and was questioned by prosecutors about official funds that DPP lawmakers accuse him of keeping for himself. While he denies any wrongdoing, Ma's woes have helped solidify the DPP faithful's support of the President. And with a win in Kaohsiung, the party can also salvage some momentum for legislative elections next year and the presidential race in 2008, when Chen can't seek another term. "It basically means that 2008 is up for grabs," says Sheng. "I think before this election most people felt Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT had the upper hand." Now it seems, the future is wide open.