Taiwan's Chen Buoyed by Vote on Special Panel

By Philip P. Pan and Tim Culpan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 15, 2005

BEIJING, May 14 -- Taiwan's ruling party won elections Saturday for a special assembly called to amend the island's constitution, giving a boost to President Chen Shui-bian and his tough stands against China after his two chief rivals traveled to the mainland and claimed a popular mandate for closer relations with Beijing.

Chen's Democratic Progressive Party won 42.5 percent of the vote, versus 38.9 percent for the opposition Nationalist Party, whose chairman, Lien Chan, made a historic trip to China last month. The opposition People First Party, whose leader, James Soong, returned from a similar visit to the mainland Friday, garnered 6.1 percent of the vote.

The election was seen as a test of public support in Taiwan for Chen's refusal to accept China's conditions for cross-strait talks. Lien and Soong favor a softer line toward China and appeared to enjoy a jump in popularity after the Chinese government warmly welcomed them to the mainland.

Analysts said the results would both strengthen Chen's hand in dealing with China and bolster his political position at home, where he has been under attack by some for being too rigid in managing cross-strait relations and by others for being too flexible.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union, a party that supports independence for the island, won 7 percent of the vote. Some analysts had predicted the party would do better by picking up support from voters upset with Chen for toning down his pro-independence rhetoric and endorsing the visits to China by Lien and Soong.

But public support for Chen seemed steady. By winning the largest share of votes, he "now has a stronger bargaining position with China," said George Tsai, a scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "This result gives him the belief that his policies and hard line are supported by the people."

Other analysts played down the significance of the election because the turnout was only 23 percent, a record low blamed on rainy weather and widespread public apathy and confusion about the poll.

The election's biggest loser was Soong, whose party stumbled badly despite his widely publicized trip to the mainland. Just two days earlier, Soong met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing's Great Hall of the People and claimed credit for persuading him to endorse new diplomatic language aimed at restarting cross-strait negotiations.

Hu and Soong proposed holding talks under a framework of "two shores, one China," a slight shift from Beijing's long-standing position that Taiwan must agree it is part of "one China" before talks can begin. Under the new formula, Hu acknowledged Taiwan defines "one China" differently than the mainland, a concession Soong said the island could use to resume talks without compromising its claim to be a sovereign country.

But Chen immediately rejected the new wording. His top official for mainland affairs, Joseph Wu, said in a phone interview that the poor showing of Soong's People First Party proved the public also considered the formula insufficient. "The people seem to have doubted his performance and rejected the 'two shores, one China' idea," he said.

Wu said the election results amounted to a "vote of no confidence in the two opposition parties moving closer to China" and should remind Beijing that it needs to deal directly with Chen and his ruling party. Wu also urged China to open unofficial talks with Taiwan on "substantive matters" to build mutual trust, including proposals to allow more mainland tourists to visit Taiwan and establish cross-strait cargo flights.

"We're waiting patiently to see if the Chinese side is willing to soften its stand, but we haven't seen any evidence of it yet," he said, adding that the new language proposed by Hu was too rigid and created confusion by focusing on disputed details of past talks instead of "the spirit of setting aside differences" that allowed those talks to take place.

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