Love notes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 12:00am

Perhaps the most significant meeting for a couple on Valentine's Day in Taiwan was the one between the chairmen of the two main opposition parties - Lien Chan of the Kuomintang and James Soong Chu-yu of the People First Party (PFP).

With only a year left before the next presidential elections, the men got together and tied the knot, signing a memorandum of understanding on the formation of an alliance to contest the election. They are determined not to repeat what happened in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won with 39 per cent of the vote; Mr Soong, who ran as an independent, took 36 per cent, while Mr Lien came third with 23 per cent.

Is this a marriage of convenience? Mr Soong, in a manifesto, said co-operation between the KMT and the PFP 'is not about a distribution of political power, but about which direction Taiwan should be going in'. The fundamental question, Mr Soong said, 'is not about who's running; we have to think deeper about the fundamental problems facing Taiwan, finding the common direction for reform. If someone else can fulfil what the PFP has been insisting on, then it doesn't really matter who will be president.'

Mr Soong was as good as his word. He said he would respect Mr Lien's decision regarding the selection of a presidential candidate. By doing so, he sent a message that he was willing to accept second place on a ticket headed by Mr Lien.

Mr Lien got the love note. At a press conference, he repeatedly praised Mr Soong for being selfless and magnanimous for the sake of the nation. There is speculation that Mr Lien has agreed that, if elected, he will nominate Mr Soong to serve as premier and vice-president, thus, in effect, giving him day-to-day responsibility for the running of the island.

Most PFP members, including Mr Soong, used to be members of the KMT. Thus, the two parties' agreement can be seen as a reconciliation of current and former KMT members. The smaller New Party, whose members split from the KMT, has also expressed interest in joining the alliance.

If the reunion holds, it could see the KMT emerging as the core of a major political coalition.

But is the Lien-Soong combination the strongest possible ticket for the opposition? Mr Lien is often described as dull and uninspiring. In fact, a senior ruling party official reportedly responded to the news by saying: 'They chose the worst candidate. We are not worried.' It is unclear whether a ticket headed by Mr Soong would be much stronger, as he has spent the last three years in the political wilderness.

The most formidable opposition candidate may well be Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, who defeated Mr Chen in the mayoral elections in 1998. However, Mr Ma, who handily won re-election last year, is reluctant to challenge the powers that be within the KMT to seek the presidential nomination this year.

The Lien-Soong union may result in another alliance as well, that of the ruling DPP and its ally, the much smaller Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), whose godfather is former president Lee Teng-hui. The TSU is much more fundamentalist in terms of its advocacy of Taiwan independence and opposes such DPP policies as allowing Taiwan semiconductor manufacturers to set up eight-inch wafer plants in China. Hence, such an alliance may push the DPP further on to a pro-independence line.

However, the pragmatic Mr Chen knows that the majority of voters in Taiwan favour the status quo. He will, therefore, try to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, something that the Lien-Soong coalition will also have to do.

Of course, this time next year there may be other factors at play, in particular the state of the economy. But voters will be given a clear choice on the crucial issue of relations with the mainland. They will be able to choose between parties that are clearly inclined to independence, versus parties clearly inclined to eventual reunification.

We will not know if the blossoming romance between the KMT and the PFP will bear fruit until a year from now. In the meantime, if the mainland government sees the unseating of Mr Chen as a real possibility, it may well decide to bide its time and continue to refuse to deal with his administration.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator