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Nationalists beat unification party in Taiwan vote

Sunday, December 12, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwan's pro-independence parties lost a hotly contested legislative election Saturday -- a defeat that might reduce the risk of a conflict with China but also continue the political gridlock that has paralyzed one of Asia's youngest democracies.

The loss was a big blow to President Chen Shui-bian, who tirelessly campaigned for candidates and promised to use his control of parliament to revise the constitution and push for a new Taiwanese identity -- pledges that unnerved China.

Chinese leaders dislike Chen because he refuses to accept their goal of unification. The communists, who took over China in 1949, say Taiwan must unify eventually or endure a punishing attack.

Taiwan's opposition coalition, known as the "blue team," won a fragile majority of 114 of parliament's 225 seats, campaigning that Chen would become too reckless and provoke China if his supporters controlled the legislature.

Voter Mary Lee, a 45-year-old Taipei office worker, said she backed the opposition, led by the Nationalist Party, because she feared Chen would start a war.

"We need the Nationalists to check and balance Chen Shui-bian so he won't lead the country on the dangerous path to independence," she said.

Nationalist leader Lien Chan celebrated his coalition's first victory in the last four major elections.

"Today we saw extremely clearly that all the people want stability in this country and want to continue to develop," Lien told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at his party headquarters.

Although Chen's Democratic Progressive Party was still parliament's biggest party with 89 seats, the party was no match for the Nationalist and People First parties, which for the past four years have teamed up to block the president's policies.

The president quickly conceded defeat, congratulated the opposition and urged all parties to work together.

"People have made their choices. Let's take it as a starting point for cooperation between the ruling and opposition parties," Chen said, "Let's turn our competition into a force for pushing the nation forward."

But it seemed unlikely that there would soon be an end to the intense political feuding that began when Chen was elected in 2000. Chen snapped the Nationalists' five-decades of rule on Taiwan, and the vindictive party has struggled to adapt to its role in the opposition.

Chen's support for more Taiwan-centric policies and his efforts to rid the island of China's influences have angered the opposition, whose supporters include many mainlanders who fled China when the Communists took over.

Political analyst Yang Hsien-hung said Chen made a strategic error in the campaign's final days by announcing that state-run companies with "China" or "Chinese" in their names will have to change their titles. Yang said the move seemed too radical.

"To win over the undecided voters, he should have adopted a more moderate stance," Yang said during a panel discussion on ETTV cable news.

One notable result was that parties known to take extreme positions on unification and independence finished poorly. The pro-unification People First Party won 34 seats -- 12 less than in the last election. The staunchly pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union's support shrank by one seat to 12.

The biggest winner was the Nationalists, who picked up 11 more seats for a total 80. Chen's party only won two additional seats.

The president's supporters quickly left his party's headquarters, where a stage and massive TV screen were set up for a victory rally. Party workers looked glum and an elderly woman in a pink dress who was to sing at the celebration broke down in tears.


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