THERE IS A POPULAR joke about former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui. During a round of golf, a member of staff of the country club he was visiting broke his concentration to ask: 'Mr President, who do you want to be your successor?' Annoyed by the interruption, Mr Lee said: 'sui bian [whoever]'. But sui bian sounds very similar to 'Shui-bian', and the staff member told everyone: 'President Lee wants Chen Shui-bian to be the next president.' This misunderstanding underscores the widely-held suspicion in Taiwan that Mr Lee really wanted Mr Chen to follow in his footsteps. Now that Mr Chen, former Taipei mayor for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is the 10th president of the Republic of China, it is time for a reality check. Any president of Taiwan has the China factor and domestic issues to deal with. So will Mr Chen lead Taiwan and the mainland into battle? Or at home, will he be able to achieve any more than Mr Lee did? Mr Chen's first big test, which has received the most attention, is in his handling of Beijing. Chinese leaders have never hidden their dislike and mistrust of the 49-year-old lawyer-turned-politician. Just two months ago, Premier Zhu Rongji indirectly condemned Mr Chen, saying: 'Whoever wants to split Taiwan from the mainland will have no good ending.' Mr Chen's inaugural address on Saturday was a reasonable start. His promises not to rewrite the constitution or to declare independence drew a controlled and mild reaction from Beijing, but his reference to a 'future 'one China' ' was described as 'evasive'. And Chinese leaders are unlikely to take the soothing words at face value. Observers pointed out that one reason behind Beijing's restrained response could be the crucial vote on the granting of Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) expected to take place in the United States Congress in Washington this week. Firing verbal missiles at Mr Chen now would certainly drive more congress members to say no to China. The new president was plainly aware of the precarious tightrope he was treading. In an interview broadcast the day before he was due to give his inauguration speech, Mr Chen frankly admitted that he had little room to manoeuvre. Anything interpreted by Beijing as confrontational would risk leading Taiwan to anarchy, admitted the man known throughout Taiwan as 'A-bian'. 'If A-bian doesn't express goodwill [to Beijing], I will not be able to calm and give confidence to the army,' he told Formosa Television. 'A-bian has never forgotten that my every word and deed could affect the possibility of war breaking out between the two sides,' he said, adding that 'confronting the tough with toughness would definitely further the confrontation'. But relations with Beijing are not the president's only tough job. In fact, he will face more obstacles in domestic politics than Mr Lee did - some even as tough as dealing with Beijing. A major stumbling block will be the Kuomintang-controlled Legislative Yuan. With 115 out of 225 seats, the Kuomintang can easily throw out any legislation and budget that the DPP puts forward. Mr Chen has made life even more difficult for himself by declaring that he will not play a role in the DPP's Central Committee. His aim is to put into effect his self-named role of 'the people's president' rather than simply being for his own party. His premier, Tang Fei, a veteran politician of the rival Kuomintang, was similarly 'exempted' from following the party line when he joined Mr Chen's cabinet. This means that both men - the president in particular - must rely on their personal charisma to mobilise and influence lawmakers, rather than working through their party caucuses. Mr Chen has another weakness compared with the Kuomintang, which used to exert its influence in the legislature through its Central Committee and a special council formed between the executive and legislative arms. The DPP does not have such a mechanism. Moreover, Taiwan's legislature is known for its violence and tomfoolery, not its efficiency. In defending themselves against lawmakers' demanding questions, government ministers often spend more time there than in their offices. With many legislators hostile to him, this will further hurt the president, who cannot push through legislation directly but can only appeal to the public to pressure legislators to pass needed laws. Although Mr Chen still enjoys strong public support, such a mass-appeal strategy will inevitably galvanise conflict between the president and the legislature. Lin Cho-shui, a senior DPP lawmaker, argues that though the DPP does not enjoy a majority in the legislature, Kuomintang legislators are also greatly divided and lack any consensus on most issues, so their ability to pressure Mr Chen and his ruling party is limited. 'Having said that, it will not be easy for the Kuomintang to actively support [the DPP] in the legislature,' he said. He thinks the emergence of the maverick former Kuomintang secretary-general James Soong Chu-yu's People's First Party will further complicate politics. The delicate relationship between Mr Chen and the legislature will come to a head next year when elections to the legislature are held in September 2001. A victory by the DPP would mean much more than just a few seats in the parliamentary body. It could also be the most critical factor affecting the next presidential election in 2004. Another problem is the DPP's lack of experience of government and the continued strong presence of the Kuomintang in decision-making. One-third of the newly formed 37-member cabinet are Kuomintang members. DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung last month warned Kuomintang ministers that they must not implement policies counter to the ruling party's platform. Apart from highlighting the DPP's problems, such rhetoric was hardly the best way to start a partnership. And unless Mr Chen can quickly introduce some neutrality measures for ministers to follow, the government may face the embarrassment of having various cabinet members campaigning for candidates of their political parties running in the legislative election. Although Mr Chen and Mr Tang have distanced themselves from party affairs, it is inconceivable that they can excuse themselves from rallying for individual candidates at election times. The scene of president and premier trading insults in public rallies will not be pretty. Then there is Mr Chen's need to balance the demands from different factions of his own party. Partly because of its grassroots background, the DPP is often more influenced by local clans and social groups than other parties, and Mr Chen will have to walk a thin line to keep various factions under control. A few cracks have already appeared. Mr Chen wanted Tainan County chief and DPP member Mark Chen Tang-shan in his new cabinet. However, last Friday - the day before Mr Chen's inauguration - it seemed that Mr Mark Chen would have to remain in his post because of disputes within the party over his successor. The argument was only settled through last-minute intervention by the president, who appointed a scholar to the post. And one of Mr Chen's biggest challenges will be his socialist agenda. The 'people's president' issued many blank cheques and made many promises during his campaign, such as the party's pledge to cancel the island's fourth nuclear plant, which is under construction. As president, Mr Chen must risk a hostile backlash from voters if he and the DPP backtrack on the election promise, or face costly lawsuits from suppliers and demands for compensation if he cancels the project. Mr Chen's election promises to increase subsidies to the elderly and give free medical care to infants will be equally difficult to make good. To bring in the money, raising taxes will be opposed by businesses and seeking extra funding from legislators will not be easy. DPP lawmaker Mr Lin believes that most of these hurdles are not insurmountable - and that ironically, China's own constraints may give Mr Chen leeway to turn his attention to domestic issues. 'China knows very well that they themselves have little room to manoeuvre in dealing with Taiwan because of international pressure,' he said. 'In fact, they [Beijing] have greatly moderated their rhetoric since March 18 [the date Mr Chen was elected]. 'Cross-strait ties will not move very fast [in coming years] and this may give Chen Shui-bian time to focus his energy on domestic politics.' Perhaps Mr Chen's final challenge will be simply remaining healthy. Under the constitution, the vice-president takes over if the president fails to discharge his responsibilities. Mr Chen's deputy, pro-independence hardliner Annette Lu Hsiu-lien, is so hated by Beijing that things could truly get out of hand if she were to take over.