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OCTOBER 20, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 41 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Pilot Error in Taiwan
To regain its bearings, Chen's government must build a real coalition

ALSO:
Battle of the Billions:
As Christianity reaches for China and India, a struggle is intensifying


Making coalition governments work is difficult. They function best amid threats that unite political rivals, or common weaknesses that force them to set aside differences for mutual gain. The election of Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan in March saw a kind of threat, as the island pondered fearfully how Beijing would react to the elevation of a leader whose party has advocated independence. Moreover, Chen won a minority mandate, since the Kuomintang vote was split between two rival candidates. Hence, he needed some backing from the former ruling party.

On his inauguration in May, the president made the right moves. He foreswore unilateral independence and sent soothing words Beijing's way. He brought in KMT stalwarts to head key posts. The most crucial appointment, of course, was the prime minister, Tang Fei. An affable former air force general and leading KMT figure, he favored eventual reunification with the mainland and was seen as a formidable bridge to the Kuomintang, which still controls the legislature.

Now that Beijing is apparently not up to any precipitous moves, the natural fissures of an uneasy coalition have surfaced. Chen's party, moreover, is keen to assert major planks of its longstanding platform, including the shelving of a fourth nuclear plant project backed by the KMT. Such factors came into play last week when PM Tang resigned over the plant's scrapping and was replaced with a stalwart from Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Chang Chun-hsiung. Although KMT figures still hold the defense and finance portfolios, any widespread sense that this was some kind of inclusive government "for all the people," as Chen loudly proclaimed at his swearing-in, has come to an end.

In retrospect, President Chen never formed a real coalition or tried seriously to build bridges to the opposition. Instead, he co-opted some prominent KMT figures and expected them to compliantly execute DPP policies. In a true coalition, Chen would have had to consult and in some cases defer to the views of opposition leaders and the legislature, which is still two-thirds held by the KMT or lawmakers loyal to the People's First Party of former Kuomintang stalwart James Soong. The predictable result is government gridlock, and at a time when the economy is showing signs of weakness.

A major misstep was Chen's stubborn opposition to finishing the fourth nuclear plant, when a compromise could have been easily found. The reactor is already one-third completed; some $2 billion, probably unrecoverable, has already been spent. Chen could have allowed the plant to be completed, on condition that it be the last. He could also have set in motion a long-term plan to phase out atomic power without disrupting the economy, as Germany and Sweden have done. Thus, the president could have remained true to DPP principles without creating a government stalemate.

Perhaps Chen feels he has strayed so far from the DPP platform in his handling of cross-strait affairs that he has to stick with the party on domestic issues at all costs. He may see that as keeping faith with his supporters and what he feels is his electoral mandate. Yet it would be wise for Chen and some DPP eager beavers to contemplate a few facts. Fact One: Chen's election was a fluke. He squeaked into the presidency with 39% of the vote. Like Kim Dae Jung in South Korea and many other opposition politicians enjoying their first taste of power, Chen won because the ruling party split. Indeed, even former Taiwan president and KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui was said to have secretly backed Chen in order to defeat his archrival Soong and promote a hidden agenda for an assertive Taiwan. Under different circumstances, Soong backed by a united KMT would have won.

Fact Two: The people of Taiwan elected a president this year; they did not elect a government. Distasteful as it may be, Chen must still deal with a legislature solidly in the hands of opponents (and one where partisan differences often lead to fisticuffs). Many now wonder whether the heads of DPP chiefs are still so swollen with Chen's victory that they think all they have to do to win full power is muddle through until next year's parliamentary vote. They seem to arrogantly assume that the KMT is dead or dying. But just as voters surprised the Kuomintang in May, they could well reject the DPP if government gridlock leads Taiwan into a crisis that didn't have to happen. Plus there is Beijing watching on the sidelines, looking for openings to exploit for the DPP's demise.

Given the stakes — besides cross-straits harmony, there is the economy, now hit by banking fears — both parties must really join hands and resist the temptation to play politics at Taiwan's expense. The new premier's decision to review the 2001 budget bill with more input from the opposition is a welcome move. The DPP may also have to allay fears in Beijing that the government is being taken over by independence advocates, like new cabinet member Antonio Chiang, No. 2 at the National Security Council. Chen should understand that he is president of all Taiwan and must embrace the views of all inhabitants, including the 61% who didn't vote for him. Then he can truly say that he is leader of "all the people" and has the mandate to face the mainland and speak credibly and strongly for the future of Taiwan's 22 million citizens.

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