Taiwan's president won a reprieve Friday when opposition lawmakers failed for the third time to muster enough support for a referendum on removing him from office.

But President Chen Shui-bian still faces hurdles in his bid to serve out the last 18 months of his second and final term as president. His next major test is likely to be the mayoral elections in Taiwan's two biggest cities on Dec. 9.

Friday's motion fell 28 votes short of the required two-thirds majority in Taiwan's 218-seat Legislature.

The main opposition Nationalist Party, the allied People First Party and seven independents supported the motion, while lawmakers from Chen's Democratic Progressive Party did not participate in the poll. The 12 members of the Taiwan Solidarity Union — a DPP ally — deliberately spoiled their ballots.

This was the third time in the past six months that the opposition has tried and failed to pass a bill enabling voters to decide Chen's fate.

Chen has been on the defensive since earlier this year over allegations that his family and inner circle abused their proximity to him for illicit financial gain.

On Nov. 3, prosecutors indicted Chen's wife and two former aides on charges of embezzling $450,000 from a special fund under presidential control, and said that Chen could face the same charges when his immunity from prosecution lapses after he leaves office.

Chen says he is innocent.

Before Friday's vote, he said the fact the ballot could take place at all showed that Taiwan was a mature democracy.

"Everybody can have different opinions about the president, and one can propose a recall against the president according to the constitution," he told a foreign visitor in Taipei.

Analysts believe that poor showings by DPP candidates in the mayor's races in Taipei and Kaohsiung could pressure the party leadership to distance itself from Chen in the run-up to legislative and presidential elections in late 2007 and early 2008.

Former Premier Frank Hsieh, the DPP candidate in the Taipei race and a possible presidential aspirant in 2008, told reporters Tuesday that DPP officials are likely to view the Taipei and Kaohsiung contests as a partial referendum on Chen's leadership.

"In the upcoming votes the DPP will analyze the reasons for victory or defeat," he said. "Then we will see the affect this has on the ... president."

Less than a week after the mayoral races, Chen's wife goes on trial in Taipei, a process that is likely to take several months at least.

Daily media coverage of the trial will almost certainly refocus attention on Chen's alleged corruption, further straining his already besieged leadership.