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The Nationalists began trying to undermine Chen's presidency almost from the minute he took office. Related Gully Coverage:

Taiwan: Democracy At Risk
The Gully's complete Taiwan coverage, its colonial past, and uncertain future as a new democracy.


An anti-nuclear, pro-Chen protester at the Nationalist Party headquarters, Taipei. Wally Santana
Lewinsky Redux in Taiwan

by Kelly Cogswell

NOVEMBER 20, 2000. When Chen Shui-bian, the pro-independence candidate, was elected Taiwan's President in March, ending 55 years of authoritarian Nationalist Party rule, the main threat to Taiwan's democracy seemed to be mainland China's rumblings of forcible reunification.

Instead, the dangers come from Chen's slim margin of victory, the pervasive web of political corruption and crony capitalism fostered by the Nationalists' five-decade stranglehold on Taiwan, and the opposition's sleazy tactics gleaned from U.S. Republicans during the Monica Lewinsky era. If you don't like the President, destroy, discredit, impeach him.

Without a Majority
Chen was elected with only 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race. And, like Vicente Fox in Mexico, Chen's party controls only an impotent minority of the legislature, in his case 67 seats out of 220, while the Nationalists still hold 115 seats.

In an attempt to reach out to the opposition, Chen appointed a Nationalist former Defense Minister as his first prime minister. It wasn't enough. Sore, unpracticed losers, the Nationalists began trying to undermine his presidency almost from the minute he took office, blaming him for everything from the fragile relations with China to the country's economic slide.

The stock market has fallen 40 percent since Chen took office, with $10 billion in foreign exchange reportedly having left the island since the spring. Some of the problems are probably due to the perception of political instability and to Chen's management: in trying to fulfill his election mandate to weed out corruption, Chen may have tried to change too much Nationalist-era policy too soon, especially in the economic sector.

On the other hand, there have been rumors that the wealthy Nationalists have been unloading their shares in Taiwanese companies to make Chen's government look bad. They certainly have the money to do it: the Nationalists' ill-gotten assets have been estimated at about $6.5 billion.

Suspect banking practices also contribute to economic instability. Earlier this month, the Taipei Times reported that "The financial institutions are heavily saddled with loans secured through political and personal relationships...loans acquired through political means have the highest default rates."

On the economic plus side, Taiwan still has some $110 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, a cushion that should help the island weather a transition to a cleaner, more democratic economy.

Impeachment Deja Vu
The opposition recently launched a drive to impeach Chen for unilaterally deciding to abandon construction of a $5.5 billion nuclear plant, already one-third complete.

The plant was a pet project of the Nationalists. During the election campaign, Chen promised to shut down the facility for safety and environmental reasons. Having already been forced to compromise a number of times with the opposition during his brief tenure, including dumping his pro-independence stance, Chen wanted to show his supporters that he hadn't dumped them, too.

On November 7, the legislature passed a bill requiring that any motion to dismiss the president be voted on in public instead of by secret ballot; this is supposed to prevent opposition members from defecting in support of the president.

The next step is an impeachment motion, though the Nationalists probably won't go through with it. They may just be using the threat of impeachment as a gambit to gain more power. Just a few days ago, a senior Nationalist Party official, in a supposed compromise, demanded a new Cabinet, with his party having the right to choose the prime minister and foreign minister as well as control pretty much everything, including foreign policy and reunification talks with China.

Nationalists have tried to bolster their case against Chen by discrediting him personally. This week opposition lawmakers accused him of cheating on his wife with an aide. The China Post characterized the accusations "as Taiwan's answer to the 'Lewinsky Scandal.'"

annette luThe matter has been further complicated by claims that it was Annette Lu, Chen's Vice President that spread the rumors. She absolutely denies it. However, Wang Chien-chuang, publisher of The Journalist, the magazine that broke the story, insisted that she was the leak. "If the vice president is really involved in the process of spreading the rumor, it is not only a news topic but also a constitutional and governmental issue," he said, hinting at impeachment for her as well.

Power of The People
While Chen has a great deal stacked against him, a powerful force in his favor is that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to a recall—even many that support finishing the nuclear plant don't want to remove him from office.

A Taiwanese worker Huang Tsai-huang, quoted by Reuters' Alice Hung summed up the mood of the nation, "I am so furious," he said. "How can some 100 legislators have the right to dismiss the president chosen by all of the Taiwan people?"

Related links:

For the Taipei Times' "Bad loans are a crisis in the offing."

For CNN's "Thousands of protesters call for nuclear-free Taiwan" in which the 100,000 protesters also called for support of Chen.

For Complete Coverage Asia

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