TAIPEI, Taiwan - Hours after nearly 500,000 opposition supporters protested outside his offices in central Taipei, President Chen Shui-bian agreed late yesterday to meet with his two main political rivals for talks in what is being viewed as a major step toward resolving Taiwan's post-election crisis.
"Without any precondition, I hope to conduct a summit with Chairman Lien and Chairman Soong next Monday," Chen said at a news conference, referring to opposition presidential candidate Lien Chan and his vice presidential running mate, People's First Party leader James Soong.
Chen said that he would accept opposition proposals for a recount of all ballots in last weekend's presidential election and that he would accept the results of the recount.
The opposition refused to accept the vote tally, which gave Chen victory by fewer than 30,000 of the nearly 13 million votes cast.
Yesterday's protest was the largest show of anger so far about the disputed results of the March 20 election.
Opposition demonstrators in yellow rain slickers and red-dominated national flags were spread out for nearly a quarter of a mile from the gates of the presidential office building.
The protesters remained peaceful in the afternoon drizzle as they listened to speaker after speaker from the opposition alliance scold Chen, whom they accuse of stealing his narrow victory.
Thousands of police officers equipped with riot gear were deployed to keep order.
Chen ordered that all protesters leave the area in front of the presidential office by tomorrow morning, nine days after the first of them began camping in the street to protest the election result.
Yesterday's peaceful protest contrasted with the tumult Friday in Taipei when a few thousand unruly protesters stormed the Central Election Commission in a futile attempt to prevent it from declaring that Chen had won the election. Later that day, the commission certified the final vote count as official.
After refusing to concede defeat a week ago, Lien and Soong demanded a recount and challenged the validity of the results in court. Later, they called for a new election.
Opposition political figures worked to keep the crowd's emotions in check yesterday in an effort to avoid a repeat of Friday's violence. Premier Yu Shyi-kun, a member of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, and Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Nationalist Party, appealed to demonstrators to remain peaceful.
"Do not let March 27 become a nightmare for Taiwan's democracy," Yu said.
It also became increasingly clear that the stakes in the drama unfolding in the streets and government meeting rooms of Taipei extend beyond Taiwan. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of mainland China, warned after Friday's violence that it would "not stand by unconcerned if the post-election situation in Taiwan gets out of control."
The days of protests and other turmoil that have followed Taiwan's election are also thought to be a key reason for Beijing's move Friday to curtail a debate in Hong Kong about the future of democracy in that territory.
Speakers at the demonstration yesterday demanded a recount, a new election and a detailed explanation from Chen about the circumstances surrounding an election-eve shooting that left him with a slight stomach wound. Opposition leaders say that a resulting wave of sympathy votes allowed him to win and have strongly hinted that Chen faked the incident.
"People want nothing more than a fair and just election," Lien told the crowd before turning to the presidential building behind him and calling on Chen to come down and address the crowd. "Don't hide in your office. Come out and listen to the people," he said.
After reviewing videotape of Chen's election-eve motorcade in the southern city of Tainan before and after he was shot, police said Friday that they were seeking two men who appeared to be acting suspiciously at the time.
At his news conference yesterday, Chen said he would resign if anyone could prove that he faked the shooting.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.