TAIPEI - Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party won a landslide victory in legislative elections yesterday, giving a big boost to its policy of closer engagement with China two months before a presidential poll it now seems poised to win.
President Chen Shui-bian, who has been criticized for aggravating relations with China by promoting policies to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence, resigned as chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party immediately after the extent of the defeat became clear.
"I should shoulder all responsibilities," Chen said. "I feel really apologetic and shamed." His resignation does not affect his status as president.
With all votes counted, the official Central Election Commission said the Nationalists had won 81 seats in the 113-seat Legislature, against 27 for the Democratic Progressive Party, with four going to Nationalist-leaning independents, and one to a Nationalist satellite party. Critics say Chen's China policies have allowed Taiwan's once-vibrant economy to lose competitiveness and have increased tension in the perennially edgy Taiwan Strait.
The Nationalists ruled a united China before 1949 and were the mainland communists' enemies in the civil war. But the party and Beijing have in recent years found common cause in their opposition to Chen.
Washington also has made it clear it finds Chen's policies toward Beijing dangerous and provocative, particularly a planned referendum on Taiwanese membership in the United Nations, which appears designed to underscore the democratic island's political separateness from the communist mainland.
A March 22 presidential election to choose a successor to Chen, who must step down after eight years in office, pits the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's Frank Hsieh against Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party. Recent opinion polls give Ma a 20-point lead, and yesterday's win by his party will probably give the former Taipei mayor a further boost.
The Democratic Progressive Party wants to formalize the independence Taiwan has had since an inconclusive civil war nearly 60 years ago, but has held off out of fears that China would follow through on repeated threats to attack. In contrast, the Nationalists favor more active engagement with China and do not rule out eventual unification.
Speaking at Nationalist headquarters in Taipei, Ma relished his party's victory - enough to give it a three-fourths majority together with the five allies - but cautioned against overconfidence going into the presidential elections.
"We need to be cautious about the presidential poll, and hopefully we can win," he said. "With a Nationalist presidency and Nationalist-controlled legislature, we can push forward the reform expected by the Taiwanese people."
If the Nationalists recapture the presidency, they will be in a strong position to end years of deadlock between Taiwan's legislative and executive branches, and stabilize the island's rocky relations with China.
During Chen's two terms as president, the Nationalists used a slender legislative majority to block many of his policy initiatives, including the purchase of a multibillion-dollar package of American weapons.
In the legislative campaign, Ma emphasized his message that Chen's reluctance to engage China inflamed tensions and hurt the island's economy - one of the 20 largest in the world - and a major research and manufacturing base for the computer industry.
Hsieh hews to the Democratic Progressive Party's pro-independence line in principle, but has made it clear he rejects some of Chen's hard-line policies, including his moves to limit Taiwanese economic ties to the mainland. He favors abandoning Chen's requirement that Taiwanese companies limit investments in China to less 40 percent of their asset value. He also has indicated a willingness to expand direct charter flights across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
Ma and the Nationalists go considerably further. They want to remove the asset requirement altogether, and sanction regular flights between China and Taiwan.