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Much at Stake For DPP in Taiwan Election - 2001-12-01

Polls have closed in Taiwan's year end legislative election and the vote tabulation has begun. Much is at stake for the Democratic Progressive Party government and for Beijing, just across the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan's central election commission is now tabulating the results of Saturday's voting. The balloting was the first opportunity since President Chen Shui-bian was elected last year, for the president's party to break the opposition's majority grip on the legislature. The president's Democratic Progressive Party, DPP has been unable to deliver his legislative agenda the past 18 months, with only a 66-seat share of the 225-seat legislative body.

The legislature has been dominated by the largest opposition party, the Kuomintang, KMT, which ruled the island unopposed for 55 years, before losing to the DPP in last year's presidential contest. Public opinion polls have long signaled the KMT will lose its absolute majority in the legislature. That makes this election, as much as anything, a forum on the future unity and viability of the KMT, which has spun off two opposition parties in the past and now has its former chairman, President Lee Teng-hui stumping for yet another opposition party, largely consisting of former KMT members.

The same public opinion polls have generally indicated that none of the major political parties is likely to win an outright majority. Short of that goal, the DPP hopes to enlarge its share of the popular vote beyond the 30 to 40 percent that it has garnered in past elections. President Chen won with only 39 percent of the popular vote last year. Most experts feel that if the DPP were to gain more seats than the KMT, the election could be considered an upset. The closer the DPP gets to the majority mark, the easier it will be for it to put together a working majority by forging a coalition.

The KMT is seeking to maintain its position as the party with the largest legislative bloc of votes, enabling it to consider a legislative coalition either with a second friendly opposition party or the ruling DPP.

One key variable for all parties will be the voter turn out. This campaign has not been fought on specific issues and there has been concern that many Taiwanese did not vote because they have become turned off by mudslinging.

During the campaign, voters were subjected to a barrage of finger pointing about Taiwan's flagging economic growth, rising unemployment, and the failure to resume cross-strait talks with Beijing. The DPP has accused the KMT of blocking its agenda in the legislature, while the KMT has accused the president of being unwilling to compromise and name KMT experts to the cabinet.

At least the election day weather was cooperative, with sunny skies and mild temperatures in northern Taiwan, which is often rainy this time of year. The north is traditionally a KMT and friendly opposition party stronghold, while the DPP and former President Lee's strongest support have been in southern Taiwan.

China's leaders are likely to be viewing this election with concern. Strong gains for the ruling DPP could be seen as increasing support for the party's unofficial agenda of securing Taiwan's independence, or at least of continuing the Chen government's unwillingness to accept Beijing's "one China" terms for resuming the cross-strait dialogue, begun under the KMT. Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the island since the KMT was driven from power in China in 1949. Relations between Taipei and Beijing have been cool since President Chen defeated the KMT last year.

If no party wins an outright majority, Taiwan politics will be in completely new territory. The island made the transition to multi-party rule for the first time in history after last year's presidential poll. The end of a single party legislative majority would signal new uncertainties, at a time when Taiwanese are seeking concerted government action to solve the island's economic difficulties.