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REFERENDUM DEBATES GET FIRST GROUP OF CHALLENGERS

2004-02-18 22:21:59

    Taipei, Feb. 18 (CNA) A group ready to challenge the government's referendum obtained the required signatures Wednesday to take part in a series of debates on the issue, independent legislator and talk show host Sisy Chen said.

    As an outspoken critic of President Chen Shui-bian, she challenged him to defend his call for a referendum in person in the public debates.

    One day after Sisy Chen and another well-known television talk show host, Jaw Shau-kong, announced that they and three others will team up to challenge the legality of the referendum in 10 debates organized by the Central Election Commission (CEC) over the two referendum questions, they collected the signatures of more than 2,400 individuals, nearly twice the 1,500 sponsors needed to participate in the debates.

    Sisy Chen, who has denounced the referendum as illegal, unnecessary and flirting with conflict from neighboring states, volunteered to serve as a member on the opposition side in the debates after the CEC failed to find any team to debate against the affirmative side, which is made up of government officials and pro-referendum scholars.

    At a news conference announcing having secured the requisite number of signatures to form an opposition debate team, Sisy Chen named specific people she said her team would most like to face off with: President Chen, Vice President Annette Lu, Minister of National Defense Tang Yiau-min, Chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council Tsai Ing-wen and Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh.

    Tang and Tsai were named to the government team because the two questions to be asked in the referendum fall within the scope of their offices. Hsieh was probably named because he is considered one of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's big guns and is known for his debating skills.

    Sisy Chen also named several people that she said had no place in the debates since they are in charge of implementing the referendum: Premier Yu Shyi-kun, Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien and spokesman for the Executive Yuan Lin Chia-lung.

    Jaw, a former lawmaker and the host of a popular television talk show, also appeared at the news conference and said that he jumped at the chance to be on the opposition debate team. "I can't stand democracy without dissenting opinions," he said.

    Jaw, who was defeated by Chen for mayor of Taipei City in 1994, has been considered a sympathizer for Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan, Chen's only rival in the presidential race.

    Lien's strategy has been to keep a lid on the controversy surrounding the referendum as much as possible out of concerns that if the questions are to be publicly debated, this would have the unfortunate effect of drawing attention away from the presidential race and focus attention on the referendum, which has been a rallying point for the president's campaign.

    Until Sisy Chen and Jaw got the needed signatures to be in the debate, no opposing political party had come forward to take part and the debates were to have been transformed into one-sided information sessions conducted by the Executive Yuan. Sisy Chen and Jaw's move put the referendum back on the front burner of public debate.

    Jaw, however, brushed aside journalists' questions that his participation in the debates might be harmful to Lien's campaign. "Why should I concern myself about Lien's campaign? Am I my brother's keeper? " he asked. "I just want to debunk the president's claims surrounding this ill- conceived referendum. It has nothing to do with Lien. Lien's party has no right to tell me to shut up," he said.

    Several little-known social activist groups also hope to field a team to participate in the referendum debates, but as yet have not secured the needed signatures for inclusion.

    The deadline for the signature drive is Friday.

    The CEC plans to organized five debates for each of the two questions to be on the referendum, with five people defending and five opposing each of the two questions, meaning that each team will be limited to 10 people.

    If more than 10 people are qualified to be on the opposition team, the final group will be determined by negotiations or by drawing lots if needed.

    Writer Li Ao appeared the previous day as part of the opposition debating team but was not at the news conference on Wednesday. The other members of the team are still being considered, and a final list has been tentatively scheduled for release on Feb. 20.

(By Maubo Chang)

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