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Taiwan's Election Results Disputed

A day after an attempt on his life, President Chen wins a slim victory that is challenged by the opposition alliance. The ballot boxes are sealed.

March 21, 2004|Tyler Marshall and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's presidential election was plunged into turmoil today as the island's High Court ordered ballot boxes sealed hours after the opposition challenged President Chen Shui-bian's razor-thin victory.

A day after surviving an election-eve assassination attempt, Chen appeared Saturday to have won by a margin of just 29,000 of the nearly 13 million votes cast. But the results were immediately challenged by the opposition alliance headed by the Nationalist Party, which demanded a recount of about 330,000 ballots declared invalid by the Central Election Commission -- a number 10 times Chen's margin of victory.

The court early today gave the Nationalists 15 days to provide evidence of their claims of irregularities.

In addition to the presidential vote, a referendum seen as a challenge to Beijing failed because less than 50% of the electorate cast ballots. The Nationalists had urged a boycott of the referendum, which asked voters whether mainland China should remove nearly 500 ballistic missiles aimed at the island and whether the Taiwanese government should try to negotiate a peaceful relationship with Beijing. Just over 45% of the island's registered voters took part, almost all voting yes.

Aside from challenging the vote count in the presidential race, the Nationalists contended that irregularities and a series of disputed, confused events leading up to the election undermined the legitimacy of the entire process, rendering the election invalid. They lodged formal legal complaints in several other jurisdictions arguing that the results should be annulled.

"This is an unfair election," Nationalist candidate Lien Chan told stunned supporters at campaign headquarters in Taipei after the result was announced. "There are too many suspicious circumstances."

The chaotic developments, coupled with the shock and controversy swirling around Friday's assassination attempt, constitute a blow to what is widely considered one of the most successful, genuine and enthusiastic new democracies in Asia. Turnout for the presidential vote was an impressive 80%.

Emotions exploded into violence early today in the southern port city of Kaohsiung when a sound truck rammed the outer gates of a government building and about 400 Nationalist supporters protesting outside attacked riot police with sticks and rocks. After a police counterattack, the protesters lingered briefly before drifting away just before dawn.

Nationalist Party backers also broke down the outer gates to the public prosecutor's office in the central city of Taichung, while in Taipei, several hundred supporters were joined by candidate Lien and running mate James Soong, head of the alliance's junior partner, the People First Party, in what turned into a loud late-night vigil. Shortly before dawn, the two led their supporters to the presidential office, where the protest continued.

By late Sunday morning, the crowd had swelled to several thousand noisy but peaceful demonstrators waving blue party banners and the island's national flag. Some carried "Shame" signs.

"This was a setup," said Lu Wen-ling, a Taipei resident among those protesting.

When the campaign first began just over a year ago, Lien led the president by more than 20 percentage points in most opinion polls. Chen gradually closed the gap by running a dazzling campaign that at times was as controversial as the result it produced Saturday.

Unlike his opponent, Chen sensed, then constantly appealed to, a growing feeling of Taiwanese nationalism, pledging to turn the island into what he called "a normal country." His quest, including calling Taiwan's first national referendum, angered Beijing, which considers the island a breakaway Chinese province that must be eventually reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Lien's Nationalists have pledged to develop strong commercial relations with China, while maintaining the political status quo in which Taiwan enjoys de facto independence but is largely isolated internationally because of pressure from Beijing. Taiwan today is recognized by just 27 countries.

In a victory statement delivered in Taipei, Chen appealed for national unity and calm but made no direct reference to the Nationalist challenge. However, at a late-night news conference, the secretary-general of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party acknowledged the opposition's legal right to contest the results.

"We will have to respect the court's verdict," said Chang Chun-hsiung, the party leader.

Nationalist Party officials have raised questions about Friday's shooting incident in the southern city of Tainan, in which Chen received a stomach flesh wound from a bullet, apparently fired from a crowd of onlookers as he traveled in an open-topped jeep. Vice President Annette Lu suffered a knee wound in the same attack.

No arrests have been made in connection with the shooting, and police have named no suspects.

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