A Changing of the Guard

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A Changing of the Guard
After 55 years in power, the Kuomintang struggles to deal with defeat in Taiwan's presidential election

Having experienced a powerful earthquake just six months ago, the people of Taiwan know all about aftershocks. Many were braced for reverberations last week after tectonic shifts in the political landscape--opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian's stunning win in the presidential elections and the end of 55 years of Kuomintang (KMT) rule. But few could have predicted the origin of the rumblings: not Beijing, which remained surprisingly quiet about Chen's victory, but the KMT's own rank and file.

The party's crushing defeat sparked unprecedented demonstrations of anger outside KMT headquarters in central Taipei. The target of the rage: outgoing President Lee Teng-hui. Once regarded as a hero for nurturing Taiwan's fledgling democracy, Lee is now being denounced as a traitor. Critics, including many followers of Lee's former ally James Soong, believe Lee handed Chen the presidency by splitting the KMT vote, following the expulsion of the charismatic Soong from the party last year after he announced his candidacy. Soong came a close second in the March 18 poll, leaving Lee's chosen successor, Vice President Lien Chan, in the dust.

In the end, the 77-year-old Lee heeded calls to resign as KMT chairman. There were many reasons for the election setback, but as the party chairman I will shoulder the responsibility, he said. His departure only makes the party's future more uncertain. Will Soong return to rally the faithful? Or, if Soong follows through on his promise to form a new party, can the KMT reform itself and remain a dominant force in Taiwan politics? That the party of Chiang Kai-shek, which created modern Taiwan, should find itself in such a quandary is unnerving to many Taiwanese.

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History Comes Tumbling Down But at least citizens didn't have to worry about Beijing lobbing missiles in their direction. Although China's leaders are surely suspicious of Chen's intentions--his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) once advocated full independence for Taiwan--they seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. President Jiang Zemin welcomed Chen's call for a peace summit between the two sides, though he said talks can take place only if Chen recognizes the one China principle. Under this precondition, anything can be discussed, Jiang said. Compare that with the thinly veiled threats of war Beijing had issued when pre-election opinion polls suggested Chen might win.

For his part, Taiwan's President-elect is sticking to his conciliatory election-eve tone, though he dismissed as unacceptable Beijing's one China principle as a condition for talks. My duty is to seek lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait, he said. People's welfare and national interests will be the top guiding principles of the new government. Analysts say Chen's softened stance on independence has defused tension between the two sides. He has provided the Chinese leadership with enough wriggle room for some kind of contact, rather than forcing Beijing to a tight corner to do something drastic, says Wenran Jiang, an associate professor of political science at Canada's University of Alberta. For good measure, the DPP proposed to revise its charter by dropping a clause that makes the creation of a Republic of Taiwan the party's goal, replacing it with wording stressing the preservation of the status quo unless a change is approved in a future referendum of Taiwan's people.

If Chen and the DPP appear reasonable and responsible, the KMT is having a hard time just staying united. Lien Chan, now acting chairman, is making a brave face of it: We hope to bring in new blood, who will bring vitality and new thinking to the party. That won't be easy. Some analysts predict KMT supporters will bolt in droves, either to the DPP or to Soong's proposed People's First Party. Tien Hung-mao, president of the Institute for National Policy Research, a Taipei think tank, predicts that, in the coming months, the KMT will be substantially leaner than it is now.

The party could suffer more immediate damage in the Legislative Yuan. The KMT currently holds 116 of the body's 225 seats. But legislator Daniel Huang, a Soong backer, believes the proposed new party would attract up to 30 KMT legislators. Such a defection would erase its majority, though it would still be the largest party in the legislature.

The combination of developments--the KMT's internal squabbles, Soong's soul-searching and Beijing's restraint--gives Chen more breathing room than he might have imagined possible when the election results came in. The President-elect is scheduled to take office on May 20, which gives him valuable time to plan his next steps, which are likely to include an investigation into the KMT's businesses. Since he won just 39% of the vote and his party is in a minority in the legislature, Chen needs to reach out to other parties and independents to be able to govern effectively. He is counting on Nobel Prize-winning chemist Lee Yuan-tseh to accept his offer of the premiership and put together a broad-based Cabinet. With some luck, the President-elect just might be able to avoid political earthquakes ahead.

Reported by Don Shapiro/Taipei and Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing