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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 December, 2004, 09:03 GMT
A bad taste for Taiwan's president

By Chris Hogg
BBC Taiwan correspondent

The pictures on the front of Taiwan's newspapers said it all.

Lien Chan, the leader of the opposition, smiling broadly, surrounded by cheering supporters.

Leader of the Nationalist Party Lien Chan, centre left, and leader of the People First Party James Soong, centre right, march with supporters during a campaign for the upcoming poll
Lien Chan's party was anxious to gain ground in Saturday's poll
"It's been a long time for us", he said, in a reference to the fact he had lost three elections in a row.

"This is the moment we've been waiting for."

Plastered alongside that picture on most front pages were images of a more sober looking President Chen Shui-bian, flanked on one side by the Vice-President Annette Lu, who looked as if she had swallowed a lemon.

This election has no doubt left a bad taste in the mouth of many of the ruling party's grandees.

They had hoped the president's charisma would carry them to an historic victory, wresting control of the Legislative Yuan from the opposition for the first time ever.

It was not to be.

Instead they found themselves facing three more years of co-habitation, and the political bickering and parliamentary gridlock that seem to accompany it in Taiwan.

He's not going to take this lying down
Dr I-Chung Lai,
Taiwan Think Tank

President Chen said it was his fault and appealed to the country to come together. He talked of the need for compromise.

But how serious is he?


Some commentators are dubious about how much ground the president is prepared to give to his opponents.

"If you look at his political career, he's a fighter," Dr I-Chung Lai from the Taiwan Think Tank told the BBC.

Supporters of the Taiwan Solidarity Union party cheer during a campaign rally for the upcoming legislative elections, Dec 5th
Saturday's poll was an important indicator of Taiwanese opinion

"He's not going to take this lying down."

"For the last four years his party was in the minority in parliament," Dr Lai points out. "But that did not deter him from pushing forward bills he believed were important. He will come back and fight."

One of the most controversial measures on the president's wish list is his pledge - made in his inauguration speech earlier this year - to renew the island's constitution.

It is controversial because China fears it is a cover for a significant step towards a declaration of independence for Taiwan, despite presidential denials.

The amendment process is likely to get under way as soon as the new legislature takes office next February.

'Checks and balances'

Constitutional changes require the consent of three quarters of the Legislative Yuan - so some kind of deal with the opposition parties was always going to be necessary.

However support for more extreme amendments will now be much harder to secure.

"The opposition's win will serve as a check and balance for President Chen's independence efforts," believes Philip Yang, associate professor at the National Taiwan University.

"There will still be a power struggle between the two camps, but under a system of checks and balance, policies will be more prudent."

That will welcomed by many in the international community, who are concerned about escalating tensions across the Taiwan Straits.

Failing to win a majority in parliament might make it harder to pursue more reckless measures which could anger China.

The president's supporters, though, had hoped that a win might give him more legitimacy - a proper mandate to govern.

The opposition after all is still pursuing two court challenges to the presidential election result.

One suit, which is due to be decided before the end of the year, could conceivably force a partial or even a total re-run of the presidential poll.

Difficult issues

Dr Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University fears that without that mandate, the Chinese leadership on the mainland will continue to ignore President Chen.

"What I'm concerned about is that Beijing will feel, OK now we don't have a problem because there is a strong opposition in Taiwan so we don't need to talk to this guy."

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian (archive photo)
President Chen Shui-bian is regarded with the deepest suspicion in Beijing

China, Dr Huang fears, is likely to continue its strategy of talking to other countries about Taiwan, but refusing to talk to the Taiwanese themselves.

"'We can wait for another three-and-a-half years and see what's going on,' they will say. Beijing has said they can wait. But what will happen in the meantime? That worries me."

Another difficult issue Taiwan faces is the decision whether or not to spend $18bn on an arms deal with the US.

"Yes, some purchases of military equipment are necessary," says Professor Szu-yin Ho, professor of political science at National Chengchi University and a member of the central committee of the KMT, the main opposition party. "But not $18bn."

"That would cause budgetary problems that will have a tremendous impact on our future."

There have already been large protest rallies against the plans.

That is to say nothing of the bitter complaints from China to the US.

Concerns for legacy

So in the end what changed as a result of this parliamentary election?

On the face of it, nothing much. The opposition held a narrow majority in parliament before the poll. They still do.

Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT) supporters
Opposition supporters were jubilant

But President Chen nonetheless managed to push through measures in the old parliament, thanks mainly to the opposition alliance's tendency to bicker and disagree among themselves.

'Divide and rule' might be one strategy under consideration in the presidential palace.

Compromise is another, of course.

But President Chen, some analysts say, is most concerned now in his second and final term with securing his place in the history of this island.

As a result real compromise is unlikely to be high up his agenda.

The question is whether the slap in the face from the voters will persuade him to abandon such lofty ideals in favour of more pragmatic government, or spur him on more to find new and more controversial ways to ensure he makes his mark.

How the vote could change relations with China

Opposition wins Taiwan elections
11 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Chen Shui-bian
19 May 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan's controversial arms deal
27 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
China rejects Taiwan talks appeal
13 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Taiwan
10 Aug 04 |  Country profiles


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