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Taiwan Election Campaign Kicks Off Amid Polls Showing President Trailing Rival - 2004-02-21


Taiwan's presidential candidates have kicked off their election campaigns as a new poll indicates incumbent Chen Shui-bian is slightly behind his top rival, Lien Chan.

The hot issue in this campaign is Mr. Chen's decision to hold a referendum on Election Day - March 20 - asking voters if Taiwan should boost its defenses if threatened by China.

The referendum is controversial in large part because communist China, which considers Taiwan its territory, sees this as a move toward independence. China has long threatened to use force if Taiwan's government declares formal independence or delays reunification.

In addition, many Taiwan voters and political analysts think the referendum appears to be just a campaign tactic.

Edward Chen is a professor of politics at Taiwan's Tamkang University. He says that even Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party is not unified on the referendum.

"Opinion leaders, and even some leading figures of the DPP … do not agree that the referendum issue is a very good issue … for the DPP," he noted.

The DPP party has long advocated independence, although President Chen backed away from that stance during his election campaign in 2000.

Mr. Lien heads the Kuomintang, which led Taiwan from 1949 until 2000. The KMT, although historically fiercely anti-Communist, has opposed independence, and its leaders argue that Mr. Chen has harmed relations with China during his administration.

On Friday, an opinion poll showed that 43 percent of the voters surveyed preferred Mr. Lien, against 40 percent favoring Mr. Chen. That is the narrowest margin yet between the two candidates - Mr. Chen's support had hovered around 35 percent for weeks.

Notably, Beijing has said little about the election, unlike in 1996 and 2000, when it issued threatening statements and carried out military exercises in provinces opposite Taiwan.

Professor Chen says that hostility backfired and only encouraged people to vote for candidates that mainland leaders did not like.

"I think China has learned a lot from the last two presidential elections. … So this time they try exercising some kind of constraint on their own behavior," he said.

Professor Chen says instead, Beijing has appealed to Washington, which is pledged to defend Taiwan from attack. The Bush Administration has made it clear it is not happy with the Taiwan referendum and has repeated its demand that neither side do anything to destabilize the status quo.

While relations with China are dominating much of the debate, voters in Taiwan have other concerns, especially the economy. The island has struggled to come out of a slump that began almost four years ago, and Professor Chen says that is a key weakness for the DPP.