Taiwan to Rejuvenate Assembly : Election: Today’s vote will replace elderly politicians from the mainland in a step toward real democracy.


Chen Min-chih, 54, still remembers with bitterness that day in 1947 when the teachers disappeared.

Rioting by Taiwan-born residents had erupted to protest abuses by the new Nationalist government, which resumed Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan in 1945 after 50 years of Japanese occupation. Thousands of Taiwanese, including many locally prominent leaders, died in the brutal suppression that ended what has become known as the “Feb. 28 Incident.”

“Two of our teachers were taken away,” said Chen, a Taipei resident who supports the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. “We never saw them again.”

Defeated by the Communists on the Chinese mainland, Chiang Kai-shek fled with his government to Taiwan in 1949, freezing into place here an all-China constitution that gave his Nationalist Party an unchallengeable rule over this island and its cowed population.


But voters today will finally go to the polls in the first general election since 1949.

At stake is control of the National Assembly, which is to consider constitutional revisions next year that would provide for further democratization. The vote will also function as a kind of massive public opinion poll on the opposition’s suggestion that Taiwan should declare itself an independent republic, permanently free of mainland Chinese control--a proposal bitterly opposed by both the ruling Nationalists here and the Communist government in Beijing.

Taiwan’s fledgling opposition is not running in enough districts to take control of the National Assembly, even if every one of its candidates were to win, so today’s vote cannot immediately put a new government in power.

The National Assembly also has only two jobs: to revise the constitution and, once every six years, to elect the nation’s president. The next presidential vote is not until 1996, and another National Assembly election is scheduled before then.


Still, today’s poll is a major step toward bringing real democracy to Taiwan. By giving Taiwan-born citizens a greater voice in politics, and thus reducing the unfairness of Taiwan’s political structure, it may also ease lingering bitterness from the bloody 1947 crackdown and subsequent decades of political repression.

“This is the first time in the history of Taiwan that the people who live here can control central government power,” commented Liu Yi-teh, a Democratic Progressive Party candidate in Taipei. Legislative elections late next year will give the opposition another chance to increase its role.

Altogether, 628 candidates are competing for 325 places in the 405-seat assembly, which will also include 80 incumbents who were chosen in Taiwan and who are not yet up for reelection. All other members of the previous National Assembly were elected in 1947 on the mainland. These elderly politicians, who gave the Nationalist Party its lock on power for more than four decades, are now stepping down.

Of the 325 assembly members to be elected, 225 will come directly from local districts; in addition, 80 nationwide seats plus 20 seats for overseas Chinese will be distributed through the parties, based on the proportion of the total vote that each party receives.


While there are many small parties and independent candidates, the election is primarily a contest between the ruling Nationalists and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

The Nationalists have great advantages in organization and finances. The Democratic Progressives also charge that the ruling party has engaged in vote-buying, manufacturing false ballots and registering “ghost” voters. A protest over alleged irregularities in the southern city of Tainan erupted into violence Friday, with some opposition activists injured in a clash with police.

But it is generally accepted that the election results will broadly reflect actual voter sentiment.

Amendments to the constitution need the support of 75% of National Assembly members. The election will determine whether the Nationalists can control 75% of the seats, and thus retain power to revise the constitution at will, or whether the opposition wins at least 25%, and thus achieves veto power--and political leverage--in constitutional reform.


Maysing H. Yang, a Democratic party spokeswoman, predicted Friday that the opposition will take more than 25% of the seats, giving it basic parity with the Nationalists in deciding constitutional revisions. But most independent analysts say that, while the opposition could win more than 25% of the popular vote, it is unlikely to pick up that high a percentage of the seats in the full assembly.

Foreign Minister Frederick F. Chien, at a press conference Friday, indicated that he expects the Nationalists to retain full control of the National Assembly and to move forward with more democratic reforms next year, including such measures as direct election of Taiwan’s governor. Were the opposition to win veto power, “it does not mean we are going to have a crisis” but it could lead to a slowing in reforms, he said.

The Democratic Progressives hope to form an informal post-election alliance with liberal Nationalists to push for a constitutional amendment establishing direct presidential elections. Some Nationalists support this idea because they feel it is more democratic. But it also is widely believed that this would increase the chances of the opposition’s capturing the presidency.

The Democratic Progressives’ other key goal is to change the island nation’s official name, abandoning “Republic of China” in favor of “Republic of Taiwan,” which then would apply for U.N. membership. Supporters contend that this is the only way to ensure that the Communist government in Beijing does not eventually take control of the island.


But opponents--including the government--argue that such a move risks provoking a military attack by China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.

Advocacy of Taiwan independence is still technically illegal under sedition laws. Many opposition candidates have ignored this ban during the campaign, but the government has said that tape recordings of speeches and other evidence will be submitted to prosecutors later for possible legal action.

Some of Taiwan’s most radical dissidents, including Chang Tsang-hung, chairman of the outlawed World United Formosans for Independence, have been jailed in recent months, provoking only small public protests and demonstrations. But any post-election arrest of National Assembly candidates on sedition charges could provoke a political crisis; on the other hand, a decision not to arrest them would ratify a new level of freedom of speech in Taiwan so that even the issue of a permanent break with China could be discussed.

“Taiwan is not a society of rule by law,” said Chen Fang-ming, a Democratic Progressive campaign consultant. “It’s rule by (Nationalist) strategy. If they arrest more people, that will cause large-scale demonstrations. If they anticipate large-scale demonstrations, then the (Nationalist) government will give up the charges. That happened before, and it’s become a pattern.”