Taiwan Risks Democratic Meltdown With Standoff Over Nuclear Plant


Even when it was just an environmental issue, the dispute surrounding this island’s fourth nuclear power plant was political dynamite.

President Chen Shui-bian’s decision in October to scrap the $5.4-billion project on environmental grounds, even though it was one-third completed, unleashed a predictable uproar. The plant had been a point of pride for the Nationalist Party, which held a half-century monopoly on power until Chen’s election last March.

The prime minister resigned, the political climate soured, the stock market nose-dived and the Nationalists talked of a campaign to recall Chen, who was just beginning his four-year term.


Then things got worse.

Last month, a Nationalist-led legal challenge to Chen’s decision produced an ambiguous ruling by Taiwan’s Supreme Court that, in effect, left it to the two other branches of government--Chen’s executive and a parliament still controlled by the Nationalists--to resolve the dispute.

The result: a bitter and damaging political standoff that is shaking public faith and investor confidence in what outsiders have long regarded as one of Asia’s most successful democracies. Early last week, hope of a compromise flickered briefly, then died. As the battle of wills has dragged on with no end in sight, public frustration has turned to worry.

“We’re facing a potential constitutional crisis here,” declared Andrew Yang, head of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a prominent think tank in Taipei, the capital. “If this confrontation drags on . . . people will ask who’s governing this country, who’s leading it. It isn’t good.”

There is also an economic dimension to the confrontation that Californians especially can relate to: security of the island’s energy supplies. With Taiwan now the biggest offshore supplier of semiconductors and other computer components for California’s high-tech industry, the impact of severe energy shortages here could produce more than just empathy for many Californians.

Environmentalists claim that Taiwan would have reserve power supplies of 12.5% to 19.2% of demand over the next six years without the 2,700-megawatt nuclear plant; others say the real figure is closer to single digits and shrinking.

“Energy is a huge issue for Taiwan’s economic security,” said Richard Vuylsteke, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce here. “You can’t take it for granted.”


It is especially bitter for Taiwan to face such political difficulties less than a year after winning praise for its fair presidential election and the businesslike transition that brought Chen to office in May.

That success, for example, visibly strengthened support for the island on Capitol Hill. Both houses of Congress were careful to consider Taipei’s interests as they voted to extend permanent normal trade privileges to mainland China.

Some foreign observers believe that serious teething troubles were inevitable for Taiwan after its first change of power, noting that until 14 years ago the island was an autocratic, one-party state. Among the ingredients for the present impasse, they say, are a ruling group--Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party--that has never before labored under the burden of power, the once all-powerful Nationalists unaccustomed to their role in opposition, and an evolving constitutional system that is still far from perfect.

“I don’t think anyone understood how difficult this was going to be,” noted a Western observer who requested anonymity. “Americans tend to be overly Pollyannaish about new democracies, but they are about more than just holding elections.”

On Monday, the contours of a settlement to the nuclear impasse seemed to emerge. Chen proposed allowing construction of the plant to restart and tossing the decision about whether to complete the project to a new parliament, scheduled to be elected in December. Meanwhile, the government and opposition would work on a long-term energy policy that would phase out nuclear power.

The idea was rejected by angry Nationalists, who accused Chen of ignoring a nonbinding parliamentary resolution last month calling on him to restart construction immediately without conditions. Only then, they said, could other issues be negotiated.


Complicating matters further, hard-line environmentalists within Chen’s party also rejected the plan, accusing him of betrayal.

The government’s chief spokesman, Tzen-ping Su, frames the dispute in constitutional terms.

“If we accept [the Nationalist demand], then it would mean the executive branch is bound to follow every legislative resolution,” he said in an interview. “We can’t allow that.”

The Nationalists are equally adamant.

Deputy Secretary-General Yu-ming Shaw accused Chen’s party of amateurism.

“They don’t have enough experience,” he said in an interview. “They are moralistic, arrogant and don’t understand the nuclear issue. They think they’ve got a monopoly on the truth. That’s nonsense.”

He held out little hope of immediate resolution.

As the standoff continues, restarting the power plant becomes more difficult. Four local companies working on the project applied last week to annul their contracts. The Taipei office of General Electric, which is building the plant’s nuclear reactors, declined to comment on the affair.

“There is damage to Taiwan’s political system, its economy and its international reputation,” said Yang, of the think tank. “Who’s going to trust us now if we want to do business with them? For Taiwan, it’s a lose-lose situation.”