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Taiwan leader goes to bat for democratic reforms - within limits

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The leader of Taiwan yesterday climaxed a year of rapid and peaceful democratic reforms by delineating the limits of such liberal change. President Lee Teng-Hui pledged to accelerate democratic reform, but not so much that it would enable the opposition to challenge the ruling party's nearly four decades of predominance.

Applauding a banner year in Taiwan for the freedoms of press, speech, and political association, Mr. Lee told the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) at the opening of its 13th congress that it ``should accelerate the implementation of the reforms ... with an even more active and responsible attitude.''

This congress is critical to President Lee's efforts to bolster his power base after less than six months in office. As the first native KMT ruler, Lee lacks the dynastic aura of his predecessors Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang Kai-shek. He also lacks deep personal or political ties with the officials that Chiang Ching-kuo left behind after his death in January.

Lee called on about 1,200 party delegates - in an indoor stadium decked with the red, white, and blue flags of China's breakaway province - to ``fortify the substance and function of democracy.''

But members of Taiwan's two opposition parties denounced Lee for failing to champion a constitutional reform critical to Taiwan's evolution toward true pluralistic democracy. The KMT has all but monopolized the island's legislature since it led 2 million Chinese refugees to Taiwan after its defeat by communists on mainland China in 1949. Only 73 seats of the legislative Yuan, Taiwan's leading lawmaking body, are held by members elected on Taiwan. Most of the other 206 seats are held by legislators elected on the mainland before the Nationalists' retreat.

Lee skirted a reference to a reform that would open up these seats to locally elected lawmakers and give the opposition a chance to topple the Nationalists and control the government.

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