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Chen Dealt Setback In Taiwan Election

Opposition Retains Slim Majority in Parliament

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A16

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Dec. 11 -- Taiwanese voters Saturday decided not to give President Chen Shui-bian the legislative majority he had sought in a hard-fought campaign as reinforcement for his leadership and endorsement of his plans to edge the self-ruled island closer to independence.

The election results, which surprised poll-takers and analysts, marked the first pause in what has been a decade of steady growth in support of independence among Taiwan's 23 million people. Forcing Chen to continue dealing with a cautious opposition in the legislature, the results held out the promise of more prudence from his government and perhaps less tension with mainland China.

Nationalist leader Lien Chan said the opposition wanted to avoid provocation. (Reuters)

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The vote for a new Legislative Yuan, or parliament, left the opposition Nationalist Party and its allies with their same thin majority -- 114 of 225 seats -- and gave Chen's Democratic Progressive Party and its partners 101 seats, only one more than they enjoy in the current legislature. Minor parties and independents won 10 seats.

"Maybe we didn't work hard enough," Chen said at a news conference after the results became known. "I would like to apologize for that to all Democratic Progressive Party supporters. I take full responsibility."

The president, who won a second four-year term in March, promised to seek cooperation with the new parliament and called on his Nationalist opponents to be "rational" in the months ahead to promote Taiwanese prosperity and better relations with mainland China.

Since they had been widely expected to lose ground, Nationalist Party loyalists treated the outcome as a clear victory, honking their car horns and milling joyously in the streets outside party headquarters far into the balmy night.

"We don't want war," Nationalist leader Lien Chan told the cheering crowd. "We don't want our government to take the road of provocation and create tensions."

Su Chi, a Nationalist follower who formerly headed the government's Mainland Affairs Council, noted that although the opposition alliance again won 114 seats, the Nationalist Party itself gained seats, from 68 to 80, while its allies in the People First Party dropped from 46 to 34. That constituted a boost for Lien's leadership and confounded criticism during the campaign that the venerable party had run out of steam since losing the presidency twice to Chen, he said.

Chen and his lieutenants in the Democratic Progressive Party declined to interpret the vote as a repudiation of their confrontational stands on independence-related issues. Instead, they blamed their showing mainly on what they called a poorly executed vote reallocation scheme.

Taking advantage of Taiwan's complicated voting rules, some popular incumbents in the Democratic Progressive Party had been asked to steer their supporters toward less-known candidates. The thinking was that the incumbents would easily get the votes they needed for reelection and could afford to give the newcomers a share. Instead, party officials explained, at least four popular incumbents lost their seats.

"I feel awful about this," lamented Y.Y. Lee, the party's deputy secretary general, who helped devise the strategy. Lee and the party's secretary general, Chang Chun-hsiung, offered their resignations over the vote results.

But Chen himself was at the helm during the long campaign, repeatedly placing his leadership and his independence-minded policies at the center of electioneering across Taiwan's 29 electoral districts. As a result, the party's mediocre showing was widely seen as a caution flag from Taiwan's 16.5 million voters.

"I think the drive toward Taiwan has been arrested," said Ho Szu-yin, a Nationalist supporter and political science professor at National Chengchi University.

During the campaign, for instance, Chen announced plans to change the titles of key state-owned enterprises to emphasize the name Taiwan instead of the island's official name, Republic of China. He also reiterated his intention to reform the constitution brought to the island by the defeated Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.

Chen's lieutenants depicted the name changes as a way to erase confusion with mainland Chinese enterprises that use China in their titles. The constitutional changes, they explained, were designed only to make the government more efficient.

Nevertheless, both moves were seen in Beijing as small steps -- out of many -- meant to bestow on Taiwan signs of sovereignty and independence. They tended to confirm for Chinese leaders their assessment that Chen wants to move Taiwan toward independence as fast as he can and that improving relations across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait is impossible as long as he is president.

China's rulers, who consider Taiwan a lost province that must return to the mainland, have vowed to bring about reunion, by military force if necessary.

Against that background, the United States declared last week that it would not support Chen's plan to change the names of Taiwanese businesses, saying the move would look like a change in the status quo.

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has promised to help the island defend itself in the long standoff with China. As part of that promise, the Bush administration has urged Taiwan to move forward on the purchase of a long-delayed $18.2 billion arms package. The Nationalist-led opposition blocked the purchase last fall, saying it was too expensive. With its renewed majority, the party again is in place to force reconsideration of the deal.

Special correspondent Tim Culpan contributed to this report.

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