- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

While the world's attention is focused on the search for Osama bin Laden, on the other side of the globe, the voters of Taiwan have just poked their collective finger into the eye of the Communist regime that rules mainland China by brute force.

Ever since Chiang Kai-shek withdrew his troops to the offshore Chinese province of Taiwan in 1949, the Communist bosses on the mainland have sternly refused to hold free elections to legitimize their domination. On Taiwan, from the beginning, things were never that bad. As Fox Butterfield once put it, on Taiwan, everything was permitted except a few things that were forbidden; on the mainland, everything was forbidden except a few things that were permitted.

Politically, though, Chiang's party, the National Party (or Kuomintang, KMT for short), pretty well ruled the roost on Taiwan, and, to its credit, made the island's economy one of the wonders of the world often described as "the Taiwan miracle." By 1987, however, this very fact had greatly enlarged Taiwan's middle class, which (as a KMT official acknowledged to me) "demands, and deserves, more freedom." In that year, therefore, the KMT courageously lifted martial law, authorized the formation of new political parties, guaranteed basic political rights and lifted many press restrictions. Since then, and increasingly, Taiwan has become a normal, functioning democracy to the great irritation of the Communist stuffed shirts on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

In March 2000, the KMT's half-century of uninterrupted rule ended when Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was elected president of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name). The KMT retained control of the legislature, however, and the ensuing months have been a time of frustrating infighting between the parties complicated by the maneuvers of smaller parties on both flanks. But on Saturday, Dec. 1, islandwide legislative elections gave the DPP 87 of the 225 seats in the new legislature (a gain of 17), making it by far the largest single party. The KMT, ruinously, won only 68 seats (down 55). A brand-new party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, backed by former President Lee Teng-hui (who had bolted the KMT), won 13 seats, and is expected to work closely with the DPP.

Another breakaway KMT figure, former Taiwan Gov. James Soong, also launched a new political group, the People First Party, and amazed observers by winning 46 seats a personal tribute to Mr. Soong, who had bested the KMT candidate and come within a cat's whisker of beating Mr. Chen in the 2000 presidential race. Finally, the New Party, which had broken away from the KMT several years ago to push for reunification with the mainland, saw its representation in the legislature sink from 11 members to a single seat. (The remaining 10 seats were won by independents.)

What all this suggests is that the KMT is well on its way to disintegration, with its place being taken by a number of new parties. This situation is largely owed to its age (it is 107 years old) and its reputation for deep and dubious involvement in the island's economy. But personalities always play a part in politics, and in the 2000 presidential election, the KMT candidate, Lien Chan, was almost stupefyingly colorless. In 2004, the KMT may have the good sense to nominate the young and popular Mayor Ma of Taipei. If so, don't count it out.

Another formidable possibility is the aforementioned Mr. Soong, a highly attractive man who was passed over by the KMT in 2000 in favor of Mr. Lien and left the party for that reason. As noted, he has already once come breathtakingly close to winning a presidential election. Next time may be the charm.

Finally, now that President Chen has a legislature he can work with, his own rather lackluster performance thus far may improve dramatically and form a solid basis for his run for a second term.

Mr. Chen vs. Mr. Ma vs. Mr. Soong three attractive candidates for president in 2004. What a contrast to the squalid deal that will produce Communist China's next chief thug in 2002.

William A. Rusher is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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