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Taiwan's President Wounded in Shooting

Chen Shui-bian and his vice president are struck while campaigning in an open vehicle. They are reported hospitalized in stable condition.

March 19, 2004|Tyler Marshall and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian was shot in the stomach and Vice President Annette Lu was wounded in the knee today as they campaigned in the southern city of Tainan on the eve of the country's presidential election, sources in the president's campaign said.

"They were shot," said Choi Yi-chen, secretary-general of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. The president did not appear to be seriously injured.

Chen and Lu were hit as they waved to supporters from an open vehicle. They were rushed to a hospital, where they were reported in stable condition. The two leaders apparently were wounded by a single bullet, which was recovered, although accounts of the incident were sketchy. There were no immediate arrests or known suspects.

Chen's Cabinet and national security team met in emergency session shortly after the shooting, reportedly to discuss the possibility of postponing the election.

The incident came after a highly charged, divisive campaign that has seen Chen rebuked by the United States and denounced by Beijing in his bid to win a second four-year term.

Taiwan is scheduled to go to the polls Saturday to select its next president in a race that political analysts say is a tossup. It was unclear how Friday's attack might affect the result.

Stakes are extremely high, with the electorate in effect deciding an issue central to Taiwan's future: the next steps in its relationship with mainland China. In addition to choosing between candidates offering radically different approaches to those ties, voters will answer two specific questions on relations with Beijing in the first islandwide referendum.

Chen, who has carefully nurtured a separate Taiwanese identity during his term and urged greater political distance from the mainland, strenuously rejects Beijing's claim that the island is a breakaway province that eventually must be reunited under China's rule.

In contrast, his Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, who served as Taiwan's vice president in the 1990s, wants to leverage Taiwan's strong economic ties with the mainland to open long-frozen political relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Lien is vague on where such an opening might lead, but he has pledged to visit the mainland on "a journey of peace" before his inauguration if elected.

Tensions between Taipei and Beijing have made the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait a potential battleground since Chiang Kai-shek fled with his Nationalist armies to Taiwan in the late 1940s after being defeated by the Communists in China's civil war.

As the sole guarantor of Taiwan's freedom, the U.S. has monitored the campaign closely, occasionally with unease. In December, President Bush publicly warned Chen not to endanger the delicately balanced status quo that had preserved peace across the strait for decades.

Surveys released immediately before a 10-day preelection polling blackout period showed Chen ahead in some findings and trailing Lien in others. The slim leads of both candidates were well within the polls' margins of error.

"At this point, it's anybody's guess," said Wu Yu-shan, director of the political science department at Taiwan's leading government-financed think tank, Academia Sinica.

In the countdown to the vote, both camps announced last-minute endorsements from leading personalities and wrestled with accusations of scandal.

On Thursday, a legislator from Chen's Democratic Progressive Party acknowledged at a news conference that the president's wife might have accepted a large political donation from a disgraced businessman.

But he said that the donation, allegedly made 10 years ago, would have been legal and that the first lady had initially denied accepting any such money because she had forgotten about it.

In a move late Wednesday expected to boost Chen's chances, the president picked up the backing of the island's only Nobel laureate, Lee Yuan-tseh, who won in 1986 for chemistry.

When two opposition party leaders announced early last year that they would join forces to retake the presidency, Chen was struggling with low approval ratings.

The 54-year-old former trade lawyer showed little vision as he presided over an economy in the doldrums and pursued a policy toward mainland China that seemed to be going nowhere. Lien, with People First Party leader James Soong as his running mate, led Chen by 20 to 30 percentage points.

Opposition strategists planned to attack Chen across a broad front, concentrating on the economy and Chen's lack of new ideas for using the island's industrial experience and technological expertise to take advantage of the expanding mainland market. But they were never able to put that strategy into play.

"These are issues of great relevance, but they just weren't in the debate," said Richard Vuylsteke, director of the American Chamber of Commerce.

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