Cabinet shake-up tests Taiwan's pro-China president

TAIPEI Fri Mar 12, 2010 6:30am EST

Taiwan's Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng speaks to the media at the Ministry of Justice building in Taipei March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

Taiwan's Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng speaks to the media at the Ministry of Justice building in Taipei March 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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TAIPEI (Reuters) - China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou faces a new test of public confidence ahead of tense year-end elections after the sudden resignation of his justice minister and the health minister's threat to quit.

Already reeling from a series of flaps last year, Ma's government late on Thursday approved the resignation of Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng over a dispute about the death penalty and urged Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang to stay after Yaung asked to leave over differences on insurance premiums.

Turbulence in the cabinet will erode confidence in Ma's ruling Nationalists (KMT) ahead of local elections that are seen as a bellwether for the 2012 presidential race, analysts say.

KMT election losses at the end of the year would chill Taiwan's stock and currency markets, which have gained on signs that export-reliant Taiwan is getting closer to economic powerhouse China despite decades of hostilities.

Ma has brokered landmark trade and transit talks with China since taking office in 2008.

Party spokeswoman Chen Shu-jung said voters should remember effective KMT policies over cabinet changes at election time, but analysts say personnel shake-ups send a dangerous signal.

"It's important not to leave an impression that the cabinet team is leaving early," said Raymond Wu, managing director with the e-telligence political risk consultancy in Taipei. "It exposes weaknesses in terms of inter-agency communication."

Ma has a strong mandate to govern, as the KMT controls parliament and the presidency, a plus for government effectiveness and avoiding political deadlock.

But widespread criticism over the government's response to deadly Typhoon Morakot in August hurt the government's popularity, prompting Ma to replace his premier and other ministers.

A deal in October to allow U.S. beef imports despite mad cow disease fears further hurt his image.

"SIGN OF INCOMPETENCE"

The justice minister quit this week after harshly condemning the island's death penalty laws, and the health minister has not agreed to stay despite Ma's plea.

The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates Taiwan's formal independence from long-time political rival China, on Friday called the justice minister's resignation a sign of "incompetence" and is expected to highlight cabinet shake-ups to discredit the ruling party in this year's campaign.

"This issue is going to be used by the DPP to show how incompetent the president was when naming chiefs of departments," said Shane Lee, political scientist at Chang Jung University in Taiwan. "They'll try to make it look overall like a team incapable of running the country."

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island. Beijing has threatened to attack if Taiwan tries to formalize its de facto independence.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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