Tens of thousands of people attended an anti-government rally in Taiwan on Sunday in the opposition’s latest attempt to convert general disapproval of president Chen Shui-bian into a sustained protest movement.

The Kuomintang, the island’s largest opposition party, said 50,000 had joined its march through Taipei, as it sought to undermine Mr Chen ahead of a series of important elections over the next two years.

Polls late last year showed Mr Chen had lost the support of almost 90 per cent of voters following a corruption scandal, a weak policy record and his party’s first clear electoral defeat in years. But Mr Chen has revived his approval ratings slightly by reverting to a hardline anti-China stance.

Two weeks ago, he angered Beijing and created unease in Washington by scrapping the National Unification Council, an advisory body, and guidelines that had been seen as token commitments to a future unification with China.

China claims sovereignty over separately ruled Taiwan and retains the threat to take the island by force should it move towards formal independence or resist unification with the mainland indefinitely.

KMT politicians blamed Mr Chen for risking the Taiwanese people’s lives for his own political purposes.

Pro-KMT scholars and media commentators have tried to talk up the need for a popular protest movement against Mr Chen since his narrow re-election victory in 2004, which they still regard as unfair.

While public support for an anti-government campaign has faded, opposition has again become vocal over the past few months. However, Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT’s chairman and the opposition’s presidential hopeful for 2008, remained cautious on Sunday.

Mr Chen’s advisers admit that one reason the president has decided to focus again on China was to make the opposition leader look as if he were unwilling to stand up for Taiwan.

Observers said Mr Ma would fall into this trap were he aggressively to oppose Mr Chen’s decision to scrap the NUC Council, a body in charge of working towards unification with China and which has been defunct since Mr Chen took office. Mr Ma, therefore, is expected to soften his stance into calls for pragmatic and rational policies.

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