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Protests against Chen gain ground
BBC News - September 7, 2006
Caroline Gluck, Taipei – When Shih Ming-teh – a veteran political activist – announced the launch of a campaign to unseat Taiwan's President, Chen Shui-bian, the result was unprecedented.
Within six working days, more than a million people signed up to support him, donating a symbolic NT$100, a little more than US$3, each.
The speed and the scale took many by surprise, including Mr Shih and his supporters.
Mr Shih spent more than 25 years in jail when Taiwan was under martial law, and was also a former chairman of Mr Chen's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), when it was in opposition.
His place in the island's history and his personal reputation were factors in the huge public response.
But Mr Shih believes that he simply tapped into a groundswell of public discontent.
"I think I am following the people's will," he told the BBC. "The anger towards President Chen is so widespread. It doesn't differ with regard to region, or ethnic groups, or even partisan positions. This whole island is angry."
President Chen and the DPP came to power in 2000 promising reform and an end to money politics, or "black gold", after more than half a century of one party rule by the Kuomintang.
Six years on, many DPP supporters now feel disappointed.
Mr Chen has been forced to apologise to the public over a series of scandals, including the arrest of his son-in-law on charges of insider dealing.
But he has strongly denied any personal wrong doing and has also defended his wife against accusations of misconduct.
The scandals, though, have seriously eroded his and his party's image, with their public approval ratings falling to all-time lows.
Yet organisers of the latest campaign – "A Million Voices Against Corruption – Chen Must Go" – have been trying to keep their distance from the mainstream political parties, saying that offers of help from legislators have been turned down.
"We don't want any partisan support. We try to keep this as pure as possible, as a movement of the people," said Emile Sheng, professor of politics at Soochow University, who has joined the protest camp as a media spokesman.
"For me, this is a social movement to rebuild the moral standards of Taiwan politics," he said. "Moral standards are not something Taiwan politicians really care about.
"I think by putting people's attention on anti-corruption, it's going to send a message directly not only to the president, but also to every politician in the future in Taiwan. To let them know that we as a people really care about moral standards and want politics to be conducted in a civil way."
Organisers say that their round-the-clock sit-in outside the Presidential Office – starting on Saturday – will adopt "creative" approaches, setting them apart from any other political rally.
Demonstrators are urged to wear red, showing their anger at corruption. They can only book a protest seat for an hour at a time and only 2,300 seats, representing the 23 million population of Taiwan, will be provided at any time.
There will be no noisy horns. Organisers say the silent power of the large crowds will speak louder than chants. They have vowed to continue the protests until the president steps down.
A "practice protest", designed to test the campaign volunteers' organisational abilities, drew large crowds.
"It's going to be a turning point in Taiwan's history. People power. We have such a lousy president," said Cheng Chung Yu, a retiree. "I'm confident Taiwan will have a new direction. I believe we will have a new president very soon."
Predictably, Mr Shih's campaign has come under fire from the DPP, with some members launching an avalanche of personal attacks on their former chairman.
But DPP legislator Winston Dang believes that far from dividing the party and creating new splits, as many feared, the latest crisis has united it.
"As far as I know, none of the DPP legislators will support Shih Ming-teh this way. Maybe a small fraction [is] not happy about President Chen, but that doesn't mean they will support Shih Ming-teh." Opposition legislators have shown their support for the campaign. But the main opposition party, the Kuomintang, so far has not been a beneficiary of the protest movement.
Its chairman – and Taipei City mayor – Ma Ying-jeou has been criticised by many for failing to strongly support the protest. Mr Ma is seen as a front-runner in the race to replace Mr Chen in elections due in 2008.
Shih Ming-teh, meanwhile, believes the momentum he has created is a watershed moment in Taiwan's political history.
While many analysts believe the campaign is unlikely to unseat the president, Mr Shih has vowed to continue his protest as long as it takes.
"The people believe in my willpower. They believe I will continue to sit with them," he said. "I will not run away, surrender or give up until we can see the people's will prevail at the end of the day."