Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-TAIWAN: Nuke Plant Row Becomes Political Fight

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Nov 13 2000 (IPS) - What began as tussle over a nuclear power project has become a fight for survival by Taiwan’s centre-left led government, whose victory five months ago marked the first change in the island’s political rulers in more than five decades.

As the opponents of President Chen Shui-Bian continued to try to oust him, tens of thousands took to the streets Sunday to support his Cabinet’s cancellation of the controversial nuclear power plant and to oppose a drive by the conservative opposition to recall Chen.

Calling for “a nuclear-free and safe Taiwan”, more than 40,000 Taiwanese from all walks of life and a number of foreign residents marched in the capital Taipei despite driving rains.

About 30,000 took part in a similar demonstration in the southern industrial city of Kaohsiung.

“The fact that so many people are marching despite the rain shows the intensity of support for the cancellation of the fourth nuclear power plant and opposition to the recall of President Chen Shui-bian,” said Shih Hsin-Min, chairman of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU).

“We hope that the opposition parties will reconsider their boycott of the new government’s move toward a nuclear-free Taiwan and cease political bickering,” Shih added.

The cancellation of the nuclear power plant, the object of intense opposition from Taiwan’s democratic and environmental movements for 20 years, was one of Chen’s key promises in the March election.

The victory by Chen, a former human rights lawyer and Taipei mayor, ended nearly 55 years of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT) or National Party of China when he took office in May.

But the KMT has a 114-seat majority in the 225-seat national legislature, resulting in a government with opposing executive and legislative branches and showing what some analysts say are flaws in the island’s democratic set-up.

Legislative elections are not slated until December 2001, and this has allowed Chen’s opponents a venue to launch an offensive against his government.

“It is clear that the recall drive is simply a strategy (by the KMT) to regain power,” said Chu Hai-Yuan, chairman of the Taipei Society, an organisation of liberal academics.

“After the election, we were proud that Taiwan could have its first democratic and peaceful transfer of political power after over a half-century of KMT rule,” said Chin Heng-Wei, political commentator and editor of ‘Contemporary’ monthly magazine.

“We could not imagine that the KMT and PFP would use the Nuclear Four issue as a pretext to try to overthrow the new government after only five months in office,” Chin added.

The construction of Nuclear Four, the 2,700-megawatt nuclear plant in question, was cancelled on Oct. 27 by Chen’s Cabinet, which is dominated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The 5.6 billion U.S. dollar facility, about one-third complete, was being built by the state-owned Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) on the north- east coast.

In making the announcement, Prime Minister Chang Chun-Hsiung said the government was stopping the project in favour of the expansion of public and private liquified natural gas-fired plants and other ways to boost efficiency of power distribution and energy use.

The KMT, which had enshrined the nuclear plant as a “fixed government policy”, reacted angrily to the decision.

KMT officials were even more angered by the fact that the decision was announced less than two hours after President Chen and KMT chairman and former vice president Lien Chan had held a nationally-televised dialogue.

Saying the decision to pull the plug from the project and not implement the budget for it was “illegal and unconstitutional,” KMT legislators, joined by the conservative People First Party and the right-wing New Party, announced their intention to recall Chen.

On Nov. 11, the three opposition groups, all led by present or former KMT members, agreed to launch a campaign to “uphold the Constitution”. Later that day, Lien declared that “many people have urged us to unite all forces to resolve the source of chaos”, namely the Chen administration.

If approved by a two-thirds vote of the legislature, a recall motion must be ratified by a majority of Taiwan’s 14.8 million electorate. If passed, it would be followed by a new presidential poll, a process that could take six months.

Chen’s efforts to ease the opposition pressure, including a nationally televised statement Nov. 5 apologizing to Lien for the misunderstanding and to the nation for the resulting turmoil, have so far failed to resolve the crisis.

On Nov. 13, presidential secretary-general Yu Shyi-kun said that the dispute on the legality of the order to cancel Nuclear Four should be settled by the Grand Council of Justices which has the power to resolve constitutional rows.

He added that Chen is willing to convene a “national affairs conference” to discuss other key issues facing the island nation.

Still, the recall drive led by the KMT has turned into what critics call an apparent attempt to overturn the March 18 poll — or at least hamstring the new government.

This is because if the legislature objected to the Cabinet’s cancellation of the nuclear project, its best course of action would be a no- confidence vote, says Academia Sinica’s Chu, also chairman of the Taipei Society, a prominent organisation of liberal academics. “But the KMT is not willing to risk its majority if the president then calls for new legislative elections,” he added.

An advertisement run in many Taiwan newspapers on Nov. 8 by the KMT legislative bloc seemed to reinforce this impression, political analysts say.

The advertisement repeated charges in the recall motion submitted by the KMT of economic collapse caused by “the Chen Shui-bian government’s trampling on the Constitution”. “How many more five months like this can we take?” it asked. “Give the people another chance to vote.”

Meantime, the opposition’s drive has sparked a counter-reaction among many Taiwanese, as shown in part by Sunday’s turnout.

“Many people are angry that we had to tolerate over 50 years of authoritarian rule by the KMT without any choice at all. But the KMT can’t stand only five months of DPP administration and is already trying to launch a restoration,” said Roger Hsieh Tsung-Ming, a national policy advisor and former legislator of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party.

A former political prisoner under the KMT, Hsieh added that the recall drive may reflect worry in the KMT camp that the decision to cancel Nuclear Four may portend accelerated efforts by the DPP-led government to fulfill other campaign promises, notably Chen’s call for a crackdown on financial and political corruption.

“The decision on Nuclear Four is seen as the first hole in the dam,” said Hsieh, who noted that a number of KMT legislators have already been convicted, indicted or investigated on financial malpractices.

Whether the KMT-led alliance will follow through with the recall attempt remains open to question in light of signs of growing public opposition, including the initiation of recall drives against some legislators belonging to the KMT and its political allies.

A poll of more than 1,000 adults conducted by the TVBS-N cable television station on Nov. 6 showed that 65 percent opposed the recall, with only 23 in favour.

Still, the formation of the tripartite alliance against Chen’s government, with an overwhelming legislative majority, promises to restrain the new government even if the recall drive itself is halted.

In their Nov. 11 roundtable, the KMT, People First Party and New Party leaders demanded all major policies should be first discussed by Chen with the legislature before they are enacted.

Having a legislature at odds with the President also promises more political wrangling. “The DPP-led government will not be able to secure approval or funds for any measure the KMT disapproves,” acknowledged a Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

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