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Taiwan Leader to Meet Rivals

After a week of post-vote protests and a day after electoral panel verified his victory, Chen agrees to plans for a recount involving judges.

March 28, 2004|Tyler Marshall and Tsai Ting-I | Special to The Times

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hours after nearly 500,000 opposition supporters protested outside his offices in central Taipei, President Chen Shui-bian late Saturday agreed to meet his two main political rivals for talks in what was viewed as a major step toward resolving Taiwan's postelection 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 of the Nationalist Party and his running mate, People First Party leader James Soong.

Chen told reporters that he would accept proposals put forward by the opposition for a "judicial recount," including the use of judges to assess the validity of each ballot.

He had earlier agreed in principle to accept a recount but by law could accept a judicial recount only after the original ballots had been certified, which happened Friday. He pledged to accept the results.

Lien and Soong have refused to accept the vote tally that gave Chen victory by a margin of less than 30,000 votes of the nearly 13 million cast.

Chen's concessions came shortly after the largest show of anger so far about the disputed results of the March 20 election.

Opposition demonstrators formed a sea of yellow rain slickers and red-dominated national flags that stretched for nearly a quarter of a mile from the gates of the presidential office building. The protesters remained peaceful throughout a long afternoon drizzle as they listened to speakers from the opposition alliance vent their wrath at Chen, whom they accused of stealing his narrow victory.

Thousands of police officers with riot gear were deployed to keep order. Chen, in return for his concessions, ordered that all protesters leave the area in front of the presidential office by Monday morning -- nine days after some began camping in the street to protest the election result.

Saturday's peaceful protest contrasted sharply with the tumultuous scenes Friday in Taipei, the capital, when a few thousand angry and unruly protesters stormed the Central Election Commission in a futile attempt to prevent it from declaring that Chen had won the vote. Later in the 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 results in court. In the last few days, they have called for a new election.

Opposition political figures worked to keep the crowd's emotions in check Saturday to prevent any repeat of Friday's violence. Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun, a member of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, and Taipei's Nationalist Party mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, appealed to demonstrators to remain peaceful.

"Do not let March 27 become a nightmare for Taiwan's democracy," Yu said.

It also has become increasingly clear that the stakes in the tense drama unfolding in the streets and government meeting rooms of Taipei extend beyond Taiwan. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of mainland China, issued a warning after Friday's violence that it would "not stand by unconcerned if the postelection situation in Taiwan gets out of control."

Beijing also lashed out at the United States for its decision to formally congratulate Chen on his victory, calling it a violation of the "one-China policy" agreement between the two countries. Under that agreement, Washington extends diplomatic relations only to Beijing and not Taiwan.

Although the United States -- like most nations -- does not formally recognize Taiwan, President Bush three years ago pledged to do "whatever it takes" to defend the island against any attack from the mainland.

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been a constant since Chiang Kai-shek fled with his Nationalist forces to the island after being defeated by China's Communists in a bitter civil war that ended in 1949. China's leaders have vowed to reunify the island under Beijing's control eventually, by force if necessary.

The days of protests and other turmoil that have followed Taiwan's election are also believed to be a key reason Beijing moved Friday to curtail a debate in Hong Kong about the future of democracy in the territory.

Speakers at the demonstration Saturday variously 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 stomach wound and what opposition leaders called a wave of sympathy votes that they insist enabled him to win. Opposition leaders have strongly hinted that Chen staged 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 challenging Chen to address the crowd. "Don't hide in your office. Come out and listen to the people."

After reviewing hours of video footage of Chen's election-eve motorcade moving through the narrow streets of the southern city of Tainan before and after the shooting, police announced Friday that they were seeking two men who appeared to be acting suspiciously at the time.

One, a balding man believed to be in his 50s, was seen running from the scene just after Chen's red, open-topped vehicle passed by. However, police declined to identify either individual as a suspect, stating that they were wanted only for questioning at this point.

At his news conference Saturday, Chen said he would resign if anyone could prove that he had faked the shooting.

*

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

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