The drive to oust Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has been put on hold as the major parties jostle to win the December 9 mayoral and city council elections for the major cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung.
The Nationalist party (KMT) and its splinter group, the People First Party (PFP), are the main opposition in parliament to Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which holds 89 seats in Taiwan's 225-seat Legislative Yuan (parliament).
Embezzlement scandals around Chen's family and close aides in recent months have tarnished Chen's popularity. The PFP, with erratic KMT support, has led the attempts in parliament to oust Chen, while former DPP chairperson Shih Ming-teh — no longer a DPP member — is leading a similar campaign outside parliament.
Shih's campaign, carried out in the name of combating corruption, has organised round-the-clock protests since September 9 in front of Chen's presidential office. These have demanded that Chen pay the price for allowing his family and inner circle to allegedly abuse their proximity to him for illicit financial gain.
Chen denied those allegations and brushed off opposition charges that his wife profited from helping to approve the transfer of ownership of an upscale Taipei department store in 2002. On October 2, prosecutors absolved her of guilt in that affair.
At an October 23 media conference in Taipei, Shih proclaimed that his anti-Chen campaign's focus would shift to legislative reforms centring on corruption issues, and the protest rallies would be moved to the Taipei central train station.
Shih hasn't given up on trying to oust Chen, but is seeking a constitutional amendment to stop Chen being immune to criminal prosecution after leaving office for alleged crimes committed during his presidency.
Shih has also flagged a new target, seeking to deal with the dubiously acquired enormous wealth that the KMT accumulated during its five-decade one-party rule over Taiwan.
Since the PFP's formation in 2000, it has been in a tactical alliance with the KMT and the New Party (another KMT splinter but much smaller) against the ruling DPP. Led by James Soong, the PFP's 34 MPs joined with the KMT's 79 MPs to put the first motion in parliament in June to oust Chen, but the motion failed to gain the constitutionally required two-thirds majority to succeed.
Soong pushed for another recall motion on October 13, but gained only 116 votes. The next day he changed tack, advocating the passage of a no-confidence motion in DPP Premier Su Tseng-chang's government — a motion that only requires a simple majority to succeed.
Soong explained that his new initiative was aimed at the president rather than the premier and vowed to try to topple every cabinet that Su may form.
On October 16, however, Soong's topple-the-cabinet proposal was unanimously rejected by all KMT MPs, who argued that the timing wasn't right for such a move. This opened up a rift in the KMT-PFP alliance, with Soong confirming days later his candidateship for the Taipei mayorality.
In the 2000 presidential election, Soong received 37% of the votes, coming second after Chen (with 39.3%), but ahead of the KMT's candidate's 23%.
Rifts have appeared in Chen's camp, with increasing criticisms of the president being made by Lee Teng-hui, a key figure behind the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which has 12 MPs and is allied with the DPP. Lee was KMT president of Taiwan for 12 years until 2000.
The TSU is fielding candidates in the mayoral races in both Taipei and Kaohsiung, a move that will split the DPP-TSU vote.
In the three mayoral elections held in Taipei by popular vote, in Taipei, Chen Shui-bian won in 1994, followed by victories for the KMT Ma Ying-jeou, in 1998 and 2002. Ma, now the KMT chairperson and widely tipped as the KMT's candidate for the March 2008 presidential election, will have his chance in that race enhanced by any KMT victories in the December local elections.
In Kaohsiung, in the DPP heartland of southern Taiwan, the KMT won in 1994, followed by two narrow DPP victories in 1998 and 2002. The DPP's Kaohsiung mayor since 1998, Frank Hsieh, is now running as the DPP's mayoral candidate in Taipei.
Associated Press reported on October 19 that polls now show the DPP mayoral candidate in Kaohsiung is running in a statistical dead heat with her KMT opponent.
Meanwhile, with the campaign to oust him losing momentum, Chen has shifted onto the offensive, again playing up his position of advocating Taiwan formally declare itself independent of China. At a September 28 celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the DPP, Chen reiterated his previous pledges to push for a new constitution for Taiwan and UN membership.
Taiwan's current constitution was enacted by the KMT government in China in 1947, and declares Taiwan to be a province of China. Under the constitution, the existing authorities in Taipei claim to rule over mainland China, but in reality only Taiwan and some offshore islands were ruled from Taipei, he said.
According to Agence France Presse, Chen also said that Taiwan would from now on apply for UN membership under the name "Taiwan" instead of its official name, "Republic of China".
"Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China. Taiwan and China are two different countries", he said, adding: "We have to uphold Taiwan's sovereignty and the mainstream values of Taiwan first."
Following the defeat of the KMT in the 1946-49 Chinese civil war by the Communist Party-led People's Liberation Army, China's official name was changed to the People's Republic of China. However, with US backing the emigre KMT regime in Taiwan retained China's seat in the UN until 1971, when Washington decided to recognise the PRC as the sole government of China, including Taiwan.
In another move that will undoubtedly displease Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province, on October 30 Chen publicly called on Japan to enter into security talks with Taiwan with the view to setting up a mechanism similar to the US Taiwan Relations Act, under which Washington commits itself to militarily defend the Taipei regime's rule over Taiwan.
Chen has also been pushing for a major arms purchase from US manufacturers for five years but this has been blocked in parliament by KMT and PFP MPs.
Washington's key representative in Taiwan, Stephen Young, issued a blunt message at an October 26 news conference, virtually ordering passage of the bill before the northern autumn ends. In response, KMT leader Ma told journalists the next day: "The Republic of China is a sovereign country… The right of the Legislative Yuan to review the bill should be respected."
In an editorial, the October 31 Taiwan Times suggested that the KMT's opposition to passing the arms procurement bill is to "sabotage relations with the US to make the Democratic Progressive Party government look incompetent in the eyes of the electorate and Washington".