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ASIA
DECEMBER 7, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 22


Chen Shui-bian, mayor of Taipei. CHERYL SHERIDAN/BLACK STAR FOR TIME


Beijing is Watching
A tightly contested election in Taipei could produce a national leader with independence on his mind
By ANTHONY SPAETH

If all politics is local, as a grizzled American pol once observed, Chen Shui-bian should have no trouble getting reelected as mayor of Taipei. Over the last four years, Chen has shuttered the capital's sleazy massage parlors and brought down the crime rate. He has opened more parks. His administration is a marvel of efficiency and, most spectacularly, he has unclogged the city's gridlock with new rail lines and bus-only lanes. His approval rating: more than 70%.

But in Taiwan's new and vibrant democracy, local politics tends to transcend issues such as parks and bus lanes. If Chen, 47, wins reelection, he will emerge as the strongest contender for the republic's top job when President Lee Teng-hui completes his second and final term two years from now. The significance of that is not merely local or even islandwide, but global. Lee's Kuomintang (KMT), 53 years in power in Taiwan, favors ultimate unification with China, agreed upon between equals, once the mainland adopts democracy. By contrast, Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) campaigns for a separate if amicable relationship with the mainland. The prospect of a DPP-governed Taiwan provokes jitters in Beijing--which is why Chen says he "feels honored" by media suggestions that he is the individual "most feared" by China.

The neck-and-neck race between Chen and Ma Ying-jeou, 48, a charismatic former Justice Minister in the KMT government, is just one of many key battles in this week's voting. The DPP is also challenging the mayoralty of Kaohsiung, the island's second-largest city. And 225 seats are up for grabs in the main parliamentary body, the Legislative Yuan. If the opposition does well, the KMT could lose its thin majority, possibly propelling Taiwan into an era of fractious politics and coalition governments. "These elections will impact Taiwan's direction in the 21st century," predicts Inge Chen, a professor of finance and law at Christian Chung Yuan University. "In relations with China, they will influence the next step, as in a game of chess."

PAGE 1  |  2



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