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banner Monday, 6 March, 2000, 19:33 GMT
Taiwan decides its future
Chen Shui-bian rally
The opposition is hoping to end five decades of Kuomintang rule
By Francis Markus in Taipei

Taiwan's presidential elections on 18 March mark the end of a bitterly-fought three way contest with crucial implications for the island's future and its tense relations with China.

Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui had hoped to place his chosen successor, Vice President Lien Chan in a straightforward contest pitting the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose candidate is the popular former mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian.

James Soong
James Soong: Expelled from the KMT for running as an independent
But last November Mr Lee's ally-turned-enemy, the former KMT Secretary General, James Soong, decided to run against Mr Lien, putting himself on a collision course with the party hierarchy.

Mr Soong and his key supporters were promptly expelled from the KMT, splitting the ruling camp and effectively turning the election into a three-way race.

Personal attacks

Since then the struggle between Mr Soong and Mr Lien's supporters has grown increasingly bitter, culminating in the KMT's decision earlier this year to sue Mr Soong for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars of party funds. In the run up to polling day allegations of corruption and other personal attacks have seemed at times to dominate the campaign, but such charges have raised a number of serious issues.

The DPP's Chen Shui-bian, for example, has made rooting out money politics a central plank of his campaign.

In response to that and amid the scandal surrounding Mr Soong, the KMT's Lien Chan announced that his party would put its massive business empire under the control of trusts.

But perhaps most important in the campaign has been the issue of Taiwan's tense relations with Beijing.

Threats of force

Just weeks before the poll, China issued a White Paper in which it underlined its determination to secure reunification with Taiwan under the "One China" principle.

Chinese missiles
China has renewed threats to use force against Taiwan
The document added an extra condition under which Beijing said it would be prepared to use force against Taiwan if there was an indefinite delay by Taiwan in talks about reunification.

Beijing's reformulation of its "One China" mantra may have been aimed at intimidating undecided voters away from casting their support behind the DPP's Mr Chen.

Rather than seeking to affect the electoral arithmetic though, Beijing may also have been trying to lay down a marker for President Lee's successor.

Mr Lee enraged felt the force of Beijing's fury last July when he declared that China-Taiwan relations should be viewed as a "special state to state" relationship.

Stability and security

As a result of this latest sabre-rattling, the three main candidates have gone out of their way to present blueprints on relations with the mainland which they hope will convince voters that they offer the best chance of stability and security.

KMT candidate, Lien Chan, has largely steered clear of President Lee's controversial "state-to-state" doctrine, choosing instead to emphasise the possibility of moving relations to what Taipei calls the "medium term" phase of greater mutual confidence and contact.

Lee Teng-hui
Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui called for state-to-state relations with Beijing
Independent James Soong has put forward a model for China-Taiwan relations, which he describes as "quasi-international" rather than "state to state". His blueprint for relations envisages signing a 30-year non- aggression treaty with Beijing.

And Chen Shui-bian's stance on relations with Beijing has become progressively more moderate. Whereas the ultimate goal of his party - the DPP - has traditionally been an independent Taiwan, Mr Chen has gone out of his way to pledge that he would neither declare independence nor change the country's name from the Republic of China.

But perhaps as important to Beijing as the nuances of the main candidates positions, is the political background to their statements.

In Lien Chan's case, China is likely to be concerned that soon-to-be ex-President Lee, who will remain KMT Chairman, could continue to play a role in shaping policy, even if Mr Lien's own views might appear more conciliatory.

'Minority' candidate

Mr Soong unlike the other two candidates represents the minority community of "mainlanders" - descendants of those whose families migrated to the island with Chiang Kai-shek's defeated forces, rather than the "Taiwanese" whose families have been on the island for hundreds of years.

As such he has often been seen as taking a more moderate position towards Beijing.

At the same time during the campaign - and even if elected - he has to be wary of appearing so conciliatory as to be perceived weak on preserving Taiwan's best interests.

Some of Chen Shui-bian's policies towards China have been among the most progressive expressed by any of the candidates.

His party's position and his credentials as a Taiwanese mean he does not need to fear seeming to be overly moderate towards Beijing.

But even were he to put forward policies designed to encourage dialogue with China, the likelihood is that Beijing would still attach more significance to the long term goals espoused by Mr Chen's party - independence rather than reunification - than to his initiatives to try to restart the two sides' frozen dialogue.

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See also:

05 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Taiwan corruption probe begins
30 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Taiwan opposition rules out independence
05 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
China casts shadow over Taiwan poll
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