Party hangover

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2000, 12:00am

After the disastrous defeat of Lien Chan, the Kuomintang's presidential candidate that he handpicked, Lee Teng-hui's decision to resign as chairman of the party came as no surprise.

As the outcome of Saturday's election showed, Mr Lee can rightly be blamed for scuttling his one-time lieutenant James Soong Chu-yu's presidential ambition in favour of Mr Lien. Despite running as an independent and lacking a formal party machinery, Mr Soong obtained a respectable 37 per cent of the vote, just two per cent less than the winner, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Among Taiwan's 25 cities and counties, Mr Soong won in 15, surpassing Mr Chen's 10. Had he been allowed to run as a KMT candidate, he would have won and the KMT would have been able to remain in government.

Although Mr Lee can take credit for carrying out democratic reforms since becoming president in 1988, the KMT under his leadership has been blamed for fostering so-called 'money politics'. In its relentless bid to remain in power, the KMT has been flexing its financial might and collaborating with shady characters to rig the outcome of many local elections.

As former KMT secretary-general, Mr Soong could well be tainted by dirty dealings. But he is nevertheless seen as belonging to a party faction that is prepared to clean up its dubious practices. By forcing Mr Soong to break rank with the KMT, Mr Lee sowed the seeds of disintegration of a party that has played a dominant role in China's history for almost a century. The KMT under a new leadership will face the challenge of re-inventing itself as it takes on a stronger DPP and the party to be set up by Mr Soong.

From Beijing's point of view, Mr Lee is undoubtedly a closet advocate of independence for Taiwan who has now succeeded in pushing the cause a big step forward by engineering Mr Chen's accession to the presidential seat. Mr Soong, whose hometown is on the mainland and who has stuck to the 'One China' principle, would have been a much more 'reliable' chief for the renegade province.

Yet even Premier Zhu Rongji's tough warning last Wednesday to Taiwanese against returning a pro-independence president was unable to tip the balance in favour of Mr Soong. That is a lesson for Beijing as it reviews its policy towards a Taiwan ruled by a party that it has not dealt with before.