A political alliance of the country's pro-independence heavyweights
could score well in December legislative elections, but risks polarizing
By Maureen Pao/TAIPEI
Issue cover-dated July 05, 2001
WHAT EVERYONE HAS been whispering about for months is finally out in
the open: former President Lee Teng-hui has publicly thrown his
support behind Taiwan's current leader, Chen Shui-bian, and
effectively turned his back on the political party he led for more
than a decade.
Lee, who still holds considerable clout within the Kuomintang, or
Nationalist Party, came out and urged his supporters to rally behind
the embattled President Chen of the rival Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP) when the two men--both native Taiwanese and both opposed to
reunification with China--shared the stage in Taipei on June 16.
Their unexpected appearance together triggered speculation that Lee
would support Chen in key December legislative elections. Lee, en
route to the United States for a sensitive June 26-28 private visit,
was at pains to deny that he would lead a new political party, saying
that he only wanted to encourage and nurture young, talented
politicians who could contribute to Taiwan's continuing
democratization and help stabilize the country's economy and politics.
Huang Chu-wen, a former interior minister close to Lee, says he
expects to announce in July the formation of a new political alliance
consisting of Lee and Chen supporters from various parties. For now,
it's unclear how the alliance will affect the legislative elections in
December, since the roster of candidates isn't known. But analysts say
it could challenge the KMT's majority in parliament, where the party
has successfully stymied Chen's government for months.
A collaboration between the two leaders--who are loathed by Beijing
for advocating Taiwan's independence--would mark a significant
realignment of Taiwan's political landscape, with potentially
far-reaching and disruptive consequences.
"The Lee-Bian alliance is making politics in Taiwan simpler,"
says Joseph Wu, a political scientist at National Chengchi University,
using Chen's nickname. Analysts say this could be the first step in
establishing a two-party system, pitting pro-Taiwanization,
pro-independence politicians against those who are of mainland origin
and are pro-reunification.
They say the main opposition and pro-reunification parties--the KMT
of Lien Chan, former senior Kuomintang leader James Soong's People's
First Party, or PFP, and the New Party--will be forced by the Lee-Chen
threat to rely increasingly on each other, setting the stage for
highly-charged political campaigning ahead of the December polls.
Lee and Chen maintain that it is only natural for a former president
to help the incumbent. But observers say the real reasons for Lee's
return to the political stage are rooted in his disappointment at
Lien's leadership of the KMT.
Tzou Jiing-wen, a journalist and author of a book on Lee, says the
obstructionist tactics employed by KMT parliamentarians in recent
months have disheartened Lee. "It is the minority voices causing
problems, forcing the government to spin in circles," she says. "Either
Lien Chan is not willing to--or cannot--control legislators in his
party. Lee sees that as a great weakness."
But Lee's disillusionment with Lien, his hand-picked successor,
extends beyond his inability to control the party. Lien, also a native
Taiwanese, is perceived as abandoning Lee's attempts to promote the
interests of native Taiwanese and attract them to the KMT, which has
historically been controlled by mainlanders. Tzou says Lee was also
dismayed by the cooperation between the KMT and his arch-enemy, James
Soong--a mainlander by origin.
Shyu Huo-yan, a research fellow in politics at Academia Sinica,
Taiwan's top think-tank, notes that politicians in Taiwan invariably
rely on the bitter divide between native Taiwanese and those with
mainland origins to mobilize voters during elections, and this year
the presence of Lee, who retains formidable support among native
Taiwanese, could further polarize the nation.
Supporters of Lee and Chen accuse Lien and Soong of selling out
Taiwan to the mainland, while KMT legislator Lee Shang-ren maintains
that his party is neither a Taiwanese nor a mainland party, but "tries
to walk a middle line and accepts different points of view."
For the two political camps, the notion of Taiwan's eventual destiny
is an integral part of ethnic identity -- though no mainstream
candidate, not even Lee, is advocating immediate independence.
For now, Beijing is likely to keep a low profile over Taiwan's
latest political developments. However, analysts say Beijing no doubt
views the cooperation between Chen and Lee with great concern. Hong
Kong's Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing newspaper, has run editorials
lambasting their alliance.
Lien and the KMT, still struggling to recover from its stunning
defeat in last year's presidential elections after more than 50 years
in power, stand to lose the most, as the new alliance is likely to
siphon off pro-Lee members from the KMT.
Some KMT members are calling for Lee's expulsion, putting Lien in a
precarious position. Up to now, analysts note, Lien has focused on
wooing back mainlanders--who make up only 15% of the party's
membership--from Soong's PFP.
However, as political scientist Wu notes, if Lien were to expel Lee,
"it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy that he is moving away
from the KMT that Lee worked so hard to build." And, as
legislator Lee Shang-ren notes, the party's goal now is to retain its
majority in parliament--and that means not rocking the boat
SOONG TO SCORE OFF THE KUOMINTANG
Soong, however, stands to gain from the Lee-Chen alliance. He left
the KMT last year and formed the PFP after Lee passed him over as the
party's presidential candidate. "The PFP is already slowly eating
away at the KMT," notes author and journalist Tzou. "For
Soong, it's not important whether he rejoins the KMT, it's how much
support from the KMT he can steal away."
Lien is not seen as a real adversary to the highly charismatic and
popular Soong. National Chenchi University's Wu believes he "will
be perceived as the only one powerful enough to stand up to Lee, and
he is capitalizing on this event."
Soong recently declined overtures from the KMT to establish a formal
alliance to fight the Lee-Chen camp. Lee, meanwhile, has moved to
allay fears among some DPP members by assuring the party leadership
that an alliance is aimed at shoring up parliamentary support for
President Chen and would not attempt to lure away DPP supporters, says
DPP Chairman Frank Hsieh.
Lee's vote of confidence for Chen couldn't have come at a better
time. Chen's government, saddled with the KMT-controlled parliament,
has been nearly paralyzed by political gridlock during its first year.
Most recently, the legislature spent more than two weeks trying to
agree on holding a special session to pass pressing financial
legislation that it failed to vote on during the regular session, in
large part due to KMT opposition.
Exacerbating the political battle are Taiwan's continuing economic
woes--blame for which has been laid at Chen's door, rightly or
wrongly. The latest broadside comes from Wang Yung-ching, chairman of
the Formosa Plastics Group, who recently blasted the government for
its refusal to accept Beijing's one-China policy.
How the elections will play out is uncertain for now. Analysts
aren't sure if the new Lee-Chen alliance will help the DPP--which now
has 66 seats--secure a majority in the 225-seat legislature.
With no relief yet in sight from the economic downturn and things
heating up in the run-up to the elections, this summer will be a hot
one for Taiwan's politicians.