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Troubled politics in Taiwan

President Chen staved off an opposition push for a recall vote, but his influence is sharply diminished.

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An opposition motion to recall President Chen Shui-bian, whose family is accused of profiting from their proximity to power, failed Tuesday to pass in the legislature, giving breathing space to the embattled president.

But the heat generated by the thwarted recall, which needed a two-thirds majority to force a national referendum, seems unlikely to diminish, leaving Taiwan with a lame-duck president until 2008.

President Chen has denied any hand in a corruption case that has snagged his son-in-law, who was arrested last month, and touched his wife, who is accused of receiving payoffs from a company but has not been charged. A senior aide has also been implicated, though not charged.

Chen apologized Tuesday for the political upheaval and appealed to lawmakers to let the legal inquiry into the corruption charges run its course, but his opponents continued to call on him to step down. His fiercest critics in the legislature, which is controlled by an opposition coalition, threatened to launch a censure motion against his cabinet, which requires a simple majority to pass.

A blow to Chen would appear to pave the way for the Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, to lead his once-invincible Kuomintang Party (KMT) back into power.

As Chen's star has faded, undone by policy setbacks and scandals, so Mr. Ma's has risen, to the point where he's already seen as heir apparent to the presidency. Opponents admit that he's the candidate to beat.

That could be welcome news to China, which is keeping a close eye on how the turmoil plays out, analysts say. Chen's pro- independence camp has soured cross-straits relations. Mayor Ma, by contrast, is considered more likely to extend an olive branch to the mainland should he step into the top slot. Ma has said that he favors eventual reunification if it is supported by a majority of Taiwanese.

"Beijing is watching very carefully to see what kind of leader Ma is, and will be in the future. It's important for cross-straits relations," says Professor Lo.

The Chen recall vote "is all about who will be the next leader of the country. Forget Chen. He's finished, a lame duck," says Lo Chih-Cheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "People are looking to judge who they will vote for in 2008."

With a two-term limit on the presidency, Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is likely to throw its weight behind Premier Su Tseng-Chang, who recently was given a greater role in policymaking. But Chen's erratic handling of the corruption probe has hurt its chances of holding the presidency and regaining the legislature, say analysts.

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