TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan's ruling party won an election Saturday for a special assembly charged with amending the constitution, in a boost for President Chen Shui-bian's policy of resisting unification with mainland China.
With 99 percent of the ballots counted, the Central Election Commission (search) said the Democratic Progressive Party (search) had won 42.5 percent of the vote, against 38.9 percent for the opposition Nationalist Party (search).
The result appeared to be vindication at home for Chen's independence-leaning policies, after recent visits to the mainland by two opposition leaders put him on the defensive and transformed Saturday's National Assembly election into a test of strength for his ruling party.
China gave a lavish welcome to the two opposition leaders — Lien Chan (search) of the Nationalist Party and James Soong (search) of the People First Party — who favor eventual reunification with the mainland and have criticized Chen's efforts to strengthen Taiwan's status as a self-governing entity.
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a protracted civil war, and Beijing has threatened to take the island by force if it moves toward formal independence.
In the election, voters chose a party list of delegates to consider a package of constitutional reforms — reducing the legislature from its present 225 members to 113, extending lawmakers' terms from three to four years, amending the electoral system to reduce the number of lawmakers per constituency, and enshrining public referenda as the only means for approving future constitutional changes.
Chen's supporters had urged followers to vote in large numbers, saying that a vote against the DPP was a vote for eventual unification with China.
Vice President Annette Lu of the DPP congratulated the party for its victory, and took a backhanded swipe at China for what she said were its failed efforts to influence the results.
"I would like to thank the Chinese Communist Party, because each time there is pressure from China, the people show that democracy is what people embrace here in Taiwan," she said.
"One billion three hundred million Chinese friends on the mainland and (Chinese) President Hu Jintao, you have heard the voice of Taiwan's people, Taiwan belongs to its 23 million people," she said.
Both the DPP and the Nationalists support the changes the special assembly is tasked with doing.
China's nightly news cast made no mention of the elections but showed a series of interviews with people on the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan praising the recent meeting between Hu and Soong.
"It showed how much we value improving ties between the two sides," said Xue Jianlong, a university student from China's central Henan province. "Our youth and the Taiwanese youth share one heart. We are all sons of the yellow emperor and hope for peace and unification."
Chan, the Nationalist leader, said the election result didn't accurately reflect public opinion because so few voters cast ballots.
Turnout was just 23.3 percent, compared with a norm of about 60 percent for national polls, as participants in the north had to contend with torrential downpours and a measure of election fatigue stemming from legislative and presidential balloting last year.
"The voting results were not conclusive because of the low turnout. If you have 50, 60, 70 or 80 percent that's different," Chan said.
"If it hadn't been raining so hard in the north, our result would have been better," Nationalist spokeswoman Cheng Li-wen said, alluding to the strong Nationalist support in Taipei and its environs.
The People's First Party garnered only 6.1 percent of the vote, coming in fourth behind the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a pro-independence party, whose spiritual godfather is former President Lee Teng-hui. The TSU won 7 percent of the vote.