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Taiwan Election Proceeds Despite Assassination Try

Chen seeks to reassure his people after being shot. The cause for the attack remains unclear; more than one person may have been involved.

March 20, 2004|Tyler Marshall and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Political leaders canceled all campaign activities and pleaded for calm Friday after an assassination attempt against President Chen Shui-bian plunged Taiwan into turmoil less than 24 hours before voting began in its presidential election.

Medical authorities in the southern city of Tainan, where Chen had been campaigning, said that the president suffered a 4-inch flesh wound to the stomach from a single bullet, but that he never lost consciousness and his life was never in danger.

Looking subdued, Chen made his first public appearance since the shooting, walking into a polling station in Taipei, the capital, shortly before noon today to vote before speaking to reporters.

"I almost wasn't able to be with you today," he said. "But thanks to good medical care, I am fine. God bless Taiwan."

Vice President Annette Lu, who was riding with Chen in the same open-topped Jeep at the time of the shooting and sustained a knee wound, also spoke briefly as she voted half an hour later in Taoyuan, south of the capital. Both leaders left Tainan's Chi Mei Hospital on Friday evening and returned to Taipei, on separate military aircraft.

A hospital team removed the bullet from Chen's stomach, and two shell casings were retrieved near the scene of the shooting. A national police official said two shots fired at Chen appeared to have come from opposite directions, indicating that more than one individual was involved, but by late Friday law enforcement officials had given no indication that they knew who had carried out the shooting or why.

The race between Chen and his Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, was considered too close to call in the final days, although some observers said they had detected new support for Lien after an islandwide series of Nationalist rallies March 13 brought more than 2 million people into the streets. Several political analysts Friday said they believed the assassination attempt probably would win Chen some sympathy votes.

"This will work in Chen's favor," said Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "His supporters will come out in larger numbers, and some of those who are undecided may now go to him." Sheng and others worried that the attack could tarnish the legitimacy of the result.

"No matter who wins, this election is now tainted," he said. "This will always be an election that was tainted by violence."

Today's election also included the island's first referendum, a highly controversial move pushed by Chen that asked voters to demand the removal of nearly 500 missiles pointed at them from mainland China, 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must eventually be reunified with the mainland, has denounced the referendum.

For a people who are extremely proud of Taiwan's journey from authoritarian rule to a truly open, multiparty democracy in just a decade and a half, Friday's attack on Chen was a demoralizing development. Although bitterly fought, Taiwan's presidential election campaigns have been largely free of violence.

The sight of Chen and Lu traveling side by side in an open vehicle through the crowded streets of a major city underscored the sense of safety that candidates in Taiwan had come to take for granted despite the divisive, emotional nature of the current campaign. Neither was wearing a protective vest.

The head of the National Security Bureau, Tsai Chou-ming, said security around the president and vice president would be tightened immediately.

"This incident will probably mark the end of innocence for Taiwan politics," said James Seymour, a scholar at Columbia University's East Asian Institute, who was in Taipei to observe the election.

Lien condemned the shooting, insisting that it would not weaken Taiwan's democracy or influence the election's outcome. He tried unsuccessfully to telephone Chen in Tainan after the attack, then failed to meet with him at the official presidential residence late Friday in Taipei.

Both camps canceled major election-eve rallies planned for Taipei and, with emotions running high, urged their supporters to go home quietly, then come out to vote today.

"Remain calm, think about our country and about our future," Lien told his backers. Election officials expressed concern about possible clashes between Lien and Chen supporters, but with heavy police presence in major urban areas, there were no reports of violence.

In Tainan, 400 to 500 Chen supporters lingered outside the hospital's emergency room entrance as some screamed pro-Chen slogans, while others cursed the Nationalists. Some Nationalist supporters in Taipei said they saw the attack as a trick by Chen to win votes.

As of early today, the circumstances surrounding the incident remained unclear, in part because neither Chen nor Lu realized immediately that they had been shot, according to Democratic Progressive Party sources.

At a news conference in Taipei, Chen's campaign manager, Chiou I-jen, told reporters that a barrage of firecrackers along the route had concealed the sound of the gunshot and that Chen realized he was wounded only after he felt the wetness of blood around his midriff.

Chen's Cabinet and security team met to consider postponing today's vote, but federal election commissioner Hwang Shih-cheng later announced that it would go ahead. Polls opened this morning on schedule.

Times staff writer Marshall reported from Taipei and special correspondent Tsai from Tainan.

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