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Monday, Feb. 2, 2004

Setbacks have Chen scrambling for win

HONG KONG -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has encountered unexpected setbacks in recent weeks that have slowed down his re-election campaign even though, at this point, the race between him and Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan is still neck and neck.

Chen's setbacks have been both domestic and international. Domestically, three distinguished Taiwan citizens -- including Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh -- issued a joint declaration calling on the two presidential candidates to focus on issues and stop their mudslinging.

It is notable that Lee, whose last-minute endorsement of Chen four years ago is widely believed to have helped him win the presidency, is now clearly unhappy with the president.

Wang Yung-ching, one of Taiwan's biggest entrepreneurs and one of the three signatories, has said that Lee has changed his opinion of Chen. Wang himself has publicly criticized the government's opposition to direct transport links with mainland China.

The third signatory, Lin Huai-min, is a leading cultural figure in Taiwan and an adviser to Chen. Their joint announcement on the front page of the China Times newspaper on Jan. 15 was a sensation in Taiwan and made clear that large sections of the public are unhappy with the presidential campaign.

It is the president who has largely set and tone of the campaign. While the opposition wanted to debate the failings of the Chen administration in the last four years, Chen has changed the campaign's focus by various moves, such as calling for a referendum -- often seen as a prelude to a move toward independence -- and his announcement of a plan to rewrite the Constitution.

These plans brought about Chen's international setback. U.S. President George W. Bush publicly rebuked him in December as someone who "may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose." As a result, Chen, while insisting on going ahead with a referendum on election day in March, has toned down the wording of two questions to be put to the electorate in the referendum.

Instead of calling on China to remove missiles along the coast pointed at Taiwan, Chen has now announced that the electorate would be asked whether the government should "acquire more advanced antimissile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities." A second question would ask whether Taiwan should "engage in negotiations with mainland China on the establishment of a 'peace and stability' framework."

Initial reactions suggest that the U.S. has been largely appeased by these changes in wording, with Secretary of State Colin Powell saying that Chen has shown "flexibility." However, Beijing remains adamantly opposed, calling the referendum "a one-sided provocation to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait."

The opposition parties have announced that they would attempt to prevent the referendum from going ahead by asking a constitutional court, the Council of Grand Justices, to rule whether the holding of such a referendum was legal. They have called on the Chen administration not to proceed until the ruling is handed down.

The two questions proposed are not contentious. Clearly, the vast majority of people believe Taiwan should acquire enough weaponry to defend itself and that Taiwan should work with mainland China to bring about peace. Moreover, Taiwan's defense minister has already said the government would purchase advanced defensive weapons, so there appears little need to subject the issue to a referendum.

What is controversial, however, is the holding of the referendum itself. A survey by the China Times showed that 37 percent backed the referendum while 36 percent were opposed. A sizable 26 percent refused to divulge their views.

As for mudslinging, so severe has it become that Lien has filed a libel suit against Chen and three officials of the ruling party over accusations that his family had amassed its wealth illegally. The president's wife has also filed suit against Lien, charging defamation, after he accused Chen of taking kickbacks.

The ruling party has withdrawn some of its charges against Lien, conceding that its figures were inaccurate. The presidential campaign had accused Lien of owning 100 times more property than what was stated in government documents.

Chen admitted that his staff had made errors in calculating Lien's assets, such as "miscalculating figures or misplacing decimal points," but he said that he would forgive them. He said he always sought to help his aides overcome their mistakes and improve.

The president is a canny politician but if he and his aides make a few more mistakes, they may find the voters less forgiving than Chen.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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