- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

TAIPEI, Taiwan After 50 years of ruling this island and a century as a fixture on the Asian scene, the Nationalist Party is struggling for its very survival following its defeat in a March presidential election.

Asked in his office recently about the state of the party, a senior Nationalist member sipped at his tea and considered. Then he leaned forward and muttered one word: "Miserable."

The March defeat the party's first since coming to Taiwan in 1949 has set off a round of soul-searching, including some 300 forums with rank-and-file members and promises of major reforms at a congress this past weekend.

But efforts to burnish the party image started poorly on Saturday when the nearly 2,000 delegates rubber-stamped Lien Chan as party chairman the very candidate who led them to their humiliating third-place finish this spring. Taiwanese media predicted Mr. Lien would select other aged party insiders to serve as the party's four vice chairmen.

"It seems to be the same people doing the same things," party member Hsieh Wei-min told Reuters news agency.

Some change was expected today with the election of the 31-member, decision-making Central Standing Committee, which for the first time will be freely elected by the delegates rather than nominated by the leadership.

"We want to create a new, youthful image for the party," party spokesman Jason Hu told Reuters. But only four of the 230 members eligible to run are less than 40 years old.

Despite the presidential defeat, the Nationalists still hold a majority in the national legislature, 115 out of 224 seats. It is also a wealthy party with property and business assets estimated to be between $4 billion and $10 billion.

But with the next legislative elections set for December 2001, one recent survey showed support for the party has slipped to just 12 percent, compared with 29 percent for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and 19 percent for a breakaway Nationalist faction led by James Soong.

The Nationalists' unraveling became evident even as the election returns came in on March 18, with 75 percent of the voters having cast their ballots for Chen Shui-bian of the victorious DPP or for Mr. Soong. The Nationalist candidate, Mr. Lien, got only 23 percent of the vote, while minor parties got the rest.

Nationalist party members immediately stormed the streets around the party headquarters, yelling for the head of President Lee Teng-hui, who resigned as party chairman several days later but stayed in office as president until Mr. Chen was inaugurated on May 20.

A litany of charges against the Nationalists were raised after the election, some of them repeats of complaints made during the campaign. At the top of list was "black gold," meaning corruption. Nationalist officials have been accused of everything from favoritism in awarding construction contracts to bribery to association with organized crime.

The Nationalists also have been criticized after their decades in power for fatigue, complacency and being out of touch with the voters.

Lin Fong-cheng, the party secretary-general, was quoted in a Taipei publication as saying party officials must get out of their air-conditioned offices to go see the real people. "Leather shoes off, sneakers on," he said.

The party is still seen by many as a machine to keep political control in the hands of the mainland Chinese who fled to Taiwan when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists of Mao Tse-tung in 1949. Party members, DPP legislators and political analysts said the failure to bring more Taiwanese into the party has been a major deficiency of the Nationalists.

At a party meeting in April, a Taiwanese-born member, Huang Chen-kuai, spoke in the Taiwanese dialect. "We don't understand," shouted the mainlanders. "Speak Mandarin," the mainstream Chinese language spoken in Beijing.

Mr. Huang retorted: "You have lived in Taiwan for so many years, and you can't even speak Taiwanese. No wonder the party can't get votes."

Among the party's other problems:

• A generation gap has opened up with the failure to attract either the children of mainland Chinese or younger native-born Taiwanese.

• Some of the Nationalists' brighter lights have left to join Mr. Soong's breakaway People First Party.

• The Nationalists are riven with factional rivalries that have sprung to the surface since the March defeat.

It has gotten to the point that former President Lee has suggested that the party start over with a new name.

The Nationalist party was founded in Honolulu in 1894 by exiled Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. It was a time of ferment all over Asia as political parties were being formed to oppose Western colonialism.

In retrospect, its decline might be dated to about 10 years ago, when it regularly got 60 percent of the vote in local elections. Since then, as democracy started to take hold and opposition parties became stronger, the Nationalists have captured less and less of the vote.

Despite the March defeat, the Nationalists have vowed to come back. On the two pillars outside the party headquarters are posters in both Chinese and English. One says, "An Honor to Serve"; the other, "We Shall Return."

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