Running against Beijing’s threats, Taiwan elects opposition president |

Running against Beijing’s threats, Taiwan elects opposition president

WILLIAM FOREMAN Associated Press Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Chen Shui-bian, vilified by China as radical who would thrust Taiwan toward independence and war, won Taiwan’s presidential election Saturday, trouncing the candidate of the party that has ruled this island for more than half a century.

Beijing deeply distrusts Chen because his Democratic Progressive Party favors taking Taiwan from de-facto to formal independence and making the 51-year-old split with China permanent.

But the president-elect, who has softened his stance on independence to appeal to nervous voters, immediately pledged to seek dialogue with Beijing.

China’s first response to Chen’s win was that it would wait to see how he would handle relations. The election results ”will not change the status of Taiwan as a part of China,” the government said in a statement issued by state media.

China has repeatedly threatened to wage war to block formal independence by Taiwan, which it has considered a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island after the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949.

A conflict could quickly involve the United States, which has hinted it would defend the island, slightly larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Fireworks crackled and air horns blared as Chen took the victory stage in Taipei and assured tens of thousands of supporters he wants peace with Beijing.

”I hope we can use closer cooperation and exchanges and use patience and respect and together Chinese society can create a peaceful and happy new century,” Chen said.

The son of a poor sugar cane laborer whose workaholic ways earned him a law degree at Taiwan’s top university and won him the post of Taipei mayor, Chen entered politics by defending dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era.

In Washington, President Clinton congratulated Chen and urged a renewal of dialogue between China and Taiwan that Beijing suspended in 1995. Chen’s win ”clearly demonstrates the strength and vitality of Taiwan’s democracy,” Clinton said in a statement.

The three-way race was an electoral cliffhanger to the end, with most polls saying the candidates were in a statistical tie. But in the last week of the campaign, Chen showed the most momentum, winning key endorsements and attracting large, enthusiastic crowds at his rallies.

Chen captured 39 percent of the vote, while populist independent James Soong came in second with 37 percent. Vice President Lien Chan of the ruling Nationalists, which have governed Taiwan for more than half a century, won only 23 percent. Only a plurality was necessary to win.

Almost 83 percent of Taiwan’s 15 million voters turned out.

Chen’s victory could be seen as a sign that China’s massive military just 80 miles across the Taiwan Strait cannot intimidate Taiwanese into voting for a candidate Beijing prefers.

”Brave Taiwanese used love and hope to overcome terror and used our votes to show our determination to maintain our democracy,” Chen said amid fluttering sliver and green confetti, his voice raspy from campaigning and then celebrating.

He is untested in the international arena, where he will face growing pressure to deliver a diplomatic breakthrough with China. Last month, China stepped up its threats, saying it will attack if Taiwan indefinitely delays talks on reunification.

China’s Communist Party and Taiwan’s Nationalists – former battlefield foes – took turns during the campaign painting Chen as an independence radical who would provoke a war with China.

Appealing to voters who favor neither independence nor reunification with a poor, undemocratic China, Chen in recent months soft-pedaled his position on independence, saying he would only put the issue to a referendum if China attacked.

Chen’s new stance was no comfort to Su Chia-chi, a Taipei math teacher. ”Sixty percent of us didn’t vote for Chen. If China fires missiles, can Chen protect us?”

The Taiwan Strait was calm, unlike during Taiwan’s first direct presidential elections in 1996 when China tested missiles near the island’s two main ports. Washington sent warships to the region to cool the tensions.

Looking out at a sea of waving green DPP banners Saturday, Chen reaffirmed his desire to lead a delegation with members of Taiwan’s political parties to China before taking office – and not to stir up any conflict.

Chen said he would be willing to meet with Chinese leaders on the mainland, in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Washington. He also invited Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, to visit Taiwan.

Lien, surrounded by glum party leaders, conceded defeat on live television but offered his congratulations to Chen.

”We did not work hard enough and that led to this defeat,” said Lien, a stiff, professorial man who struggled to convince voters he understood the common people.

Lien’s concession was a sign that Taiwan would likely clear a key hurdle for all young democracies, the smooth transition of power from a ruling party to the opposition.

Chen’s victory was largely a result of a Nationalist split. Soong, once a party superstar, was ousted from the party after he refused to support Lien and launched his own maverick campaign.

Chen supporter Kuo Yi-hsiu, a 55-year old government employee, said Taiwan’s democracy should be a model to China.

”All Chinese should be free to choose their own destiny, and choose their own leader,” cooling herself with a fan with Chen’s face on it.

On the Net: Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party,

Independent James Soong,

Nationalist Vice President Lien Chan,