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ASIA
DECEMBER 7, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 22


Mayor Chen notes that many people are viewing the Taipei race as a "dress rehearsal" for the presidential election. He seems ready, having earned a reputation as one of the island's foremost heroes in the struggle for democracy. In 1980, the former maritime lawyer helped defend eight activists accused of sedition. After Chen lost a seat on Tainan's city council in 1981, his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was hit by a truck; she is permanently disabled. While Chen spent eight months in jail in the mid-1980s for publishing controversial articles, Wu was elected to the Legislative Yuan on a sympathy vote. He took over her seat three years later. In 1994 he became Taipei's first non-KMT mayor in a generation.

Challenger Ma is no less admired. Born in Hong Kong to parents from the mainland and educated at Harvard Law School, he has a shaky command of the Taiwanese dialect and his resume is largely made up of appointments from on high. But as Justice Minister in the mid-1990s, Ma combated corruption, winning popular support while making numerous enemies in the KMT establishment. He resigned last year, announcing that he no longer knew "what to fight for or whom to fight for"--a comment that irritated President Lee, according to insiders. The handsome politician is supported by voters scared of the DPP's pro-independence stance and those who admire him for standing up to Lee. Ma has been leading in opinion polls, though Chen draws larger crowds and is striking back hard, reminding voters that in the mid-1990s Ma publicly opposed direct presidential elections. Many opposition supporters, in a carryover from martial-law days, are wary of admitting their leanings to pollsters.

If Chen is reelected, he insists, he won't abandon the mayoralty for a presidential bid. But two years is a long time in politics. (If Ma wins, he will likely not be the KMT candidate to succeed Lee; other possibles are Vice President Lien Chan and Taiwan provincial Governor James Soong.) Thus, Taipei voters are evaluating the candidates not merely on competence and cleanness, but on how they might deal with the mainland. The labels can be misleading, and China's reaction is fluid. The KMT has abandoned its demand that China be reunified under its control. Now, it argues that China is a divided country made up of two equally legitimate political entities. Reunification would be a long-term process of trust-building contacts, commerce and negotiations. Ma says Chen's pro-independence stance is risky to "regional security and stability." Chen, for his part, insists the people of Taiwan, unlike those of Hong Kong, should "have the final right to decide their own destiny." But he also accepts the need to negotiate with Beijing. The distinction sounds subtle to an outsider, but not to Chen. "There definitely would be a major difference for cross-strait relations if I win," he says--a campaign promise that neither Taiwan nor the mainland is likely to ignore.

Reported by Don Shapiro/Taipei

PAGE 1  |  2



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