Lee Teng-hui outburst seen as election ploy

Party's poor prospects may explain why Taiwan's former president seems to have changed his views on independence

Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui has raised eyebrows with his abrupt change in political position, which analysts see as a strategy to boost the prospects of his struggling Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) ahead of legislative elections at the end of the year.

They also say the 84-year-old is seeking to regain his influence in Taiwan's politics.

The veteran politician, reviled by Beijing as a 'splittist' who should be swept to the 'dustbin of history', first caught Taiwanese off guard by telling a weekly magazine earlier this month that he had 'never advocated Taiwan independence' and thought there was 'no need to pursue Taiwan independence'.

And contrary to the commonly held belief that he opposed investment links with the mainland, Mr Lee told the Taiwan-edition of Hong Kong's Next Magazine he wanted more funds and resources from the mainland.

He even said he wanted to visit the mainland, which test-fired missiles to menace Taiwan in 1996 in retaliation against his high-profile visit to the US one year earlier to promote Taiwan's independent sovereignty.

After his comments sparked venomous attacks from hard-line pro-independence leaders, Mr Lee declared war on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, a former ally.

He told Japan's Sankei Shimbun daily in a recent interview that the DPP cared nothing about people's livelihoods but was purely focused on winning next year's presidential election. 'I share no common views' with the independence-leaning party, he said.

He also invited a group of pro-opposition figures, including Kuomintang legislator Lai Shyi-bao, known to be close with former KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou, to a dinner last Thursday to 'exchange views'.

Mr Lai said later that Mr Lee was troubled by the DPP's inability to resolve the bitter political bickering with the opposition or improve the general well-being of Taiwan.

Taiwanese media also reported Mr Lee had spent hours analysing cross-strait economic exchanges and was expected to present his latest views after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Angry pro-independence politicians lashed out at Mr Lee, calling him a turncoat for dropping his pro-independence stance.

'Taiwan independence is already a mainstream opinion in Taiwan. I wonder how he could have said something like that,' said hardliner Koo Kuan-min.

Mr Lee, however, said he thought 'Taiwan is already sovereignly independent, and there is no need to declare independence'.

He said that for Taiwan to continue to say that it wanted independence, only made Taiwan look like it was still a territory of the mainland. 'We are seeking normalisation of the country, rectification of its title and institution of the constitution,' he said, adding the DPP was just using the pro-independence slogan to cheat voters and win their votes.

DPP legislator Wang Sing-nan accused Mr Lee of criticising the DPP 'to protect the interests of the TSU ahead of the legislative elections'.

Mr Lee is regarded as the spiritual leader of the TSU, which was set up in 2001 after Mr Lee broke ranks with the KMT, but it is facing political doom in the face of growing polarisation of support between the KMT and the DPP.

The TSU, which failed in last year's mayoral elections in Kaohsiung and Taipei, holds just 12 seats in the legislature and could lose even more seats in December when a new electoral system cuts the number of seats from 218 to 113.

'Lee originally hoped that the DPP would meet its doom last year after a string of corruption scandals linked to President Chen Shui-bian, his family and aides. But the DPP was able to tide itself over that difficulty,' said political analyst Hsu Yung-ming, a research fellow at the prestigious Academia Sinica.

With the backing of pro-independence hardliners who used to support Mr Lee, Mr Chen survived three recall motions raised by the opposition last year aimed at forcing him to resign.

That explained why Mr Lee was forced to shift his political stand towards the centre ground in order to appeal to relatively neutral voters, Mr Hsu noted.

Analysts said that through his latest moves, Mr Lee also hoped to regain his faded influence. One possible way was to co-operate with the opposition and mend fences with the mainland, they said.