Taiwan leader wins election

President Chen retains office by narrow margin

Opponent calls for a recount

Nation's high court orders all ballot boxes sealed

March 21, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan - The people of Taiwan narrowly re-elected President Chen Shui-bian a day after an apparent assassination attempt, but his opponent did not concede defeat, calling for an annulment of the results and a recount, and he implied that Friday's shooting may have been manipulated to lift Chen to victory.

Early today, in response to challenger Lien Chan's complaints, Taiwan's high court ordered all ballot boxes sealed but stopped short of ordering a recount. In Taipei and other cities, meanwhile, Lien supporters protested the outcome of the election, in which Chen's winning margin was fewer than 30,000 votes out of 12.9 million valid ballots cast.

Chen's victory, should it stand, will be a bitter disappointment for Beijing, which has been angered by Chen's promotion of Taiwanese identity and apparent leanings toward formal independence.

With such a close vote over Lien and his more conciliatory approach to China, Chen did not get a mandate from the electorate on relations with Beijing. Also, Chen's "defensive" referendum concerning Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan failed because a majority of voters chose not to vote on it, a possible warning to Chen not to go too far in his provocations of Beijing.

In his victory speech, Chen avoided mentioning Lien's refusal to concede, calling the vote a step forward for Taiwan's "much-watched" democracy.

"This is not a personal or party victory, but a victory for Taiwan democracy," said Chen, appearing to show no ill effects from the shooting at a campaign event in southern Taiwan, in which a bullet from an unknown assailant grazed his stomach. His running mate, Annette Lu, was hit in the right leg and was walking with a crutch yesterday.

Chen then turned his attention to China, expressing a desire for dialogue and "peace across the strait" and asking that China withdraw an estimated 500 missiles aimed at Taiwan. He ended on the sort of nationalistic note he favors that tends to irk Beijing: "God bless Taiwan. Let's unite together to defend this piece of land, to defend the common future of 23 million people."

Taiwan enjoys de facto independent status from China, but China considers the self-ruling island of 23 million a renegade province and has threatened war if it declares formal independence.

Beijing had no immediate comment but was surely watching with interest as the island's third-ever democratic presidential election - an impossibility in Communist China - threatened to devolve into turmoil.

Taiwan's Central Election Commission certified Chen's victory last night, but Lien's defiance and the court's sealing of the ballot boxes clearly fueled doubts and anger among Lien's supporters.

"It is not a fair election," Lien declared in a nationally televised speech in front of thousands of supporters, gathered within a few miles of Chen's far more boisterous rally. He called for the sealing of the ballot boxes, and he said that too little was known about Friday's shooting, which conspiracy theorists in Lien's Nationalist Party have suggested was staged to win sympathy votes for Chen.

The conspiracy theorists pounced on the news - also noted by Lien - that the election commission had invalidated 337,000 ballots, more than 11 times Chen's victory margin. As Lien's lawyers headed to Taiwan's high court last night, the presidential election began taking on the familiar feel of Florida in 2000.

"I think their strategy is like Al Gore in the United States presidential election," said Chen Yuchun, director of the Graduate Institute of American Studies at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. Chen said he feared a "constitutional crisis," and noted that Taiwan has not been holding elections for long. "The United States is an old democracy. We are just a young democracy. So I think you will see many strange things ahead."

In a televised announcement today, Taiwan's high court spokesman Wen Yao-yuan said the ballots would be sealed to preserve evidence. At the same time, hundreds of people gathered outside the presidential office to protest the election results. Angry crowds fought with police, broke windows and pushed back barriers in the island's second- and third-largest cities. The government sent in riot police to quell the violence.

In Beijing, Communist authorities had pinned their hopes on Lien, who advocated closer ties with the mainland, including possible adoption of direct flights and other links that supporters believe will boost the Taiwanese economy. Until now, Chen has said he would negotiate with China only on a "state-to-state" basis, a position that China has deemed unacceptable.

In characteristic fashion, China barred news coverage of the election throughout the day Saturday. The official New China News Agency announced the results of the election of Taiwan's "leaders" - not using the more sovereign title "president" - shortly after 2 a.m.

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