Agence France Press

President Chen consolidates as lawmakers wrangle over Taiwan election

Thursday, March 25 2004

TAIPEI, (AFP) - President Chen Shui-bian is set to be officially declared the winner of Taiwan's disputed presidential election even as feuding lawmakers gather to try to agree on a plan for a ballot recount.

Demonstrations have continued since Chen beat his sole rival Lien Chan, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), last Saturday by just 0.22 percent after the opposition blamed an unsolved assassination attempt on the president on the eve of polling and vote-rigging for its loss.

The two camps remain deeply divided over plans for a recount in talks taking place at parliament on Friday. And there is no end in sight to the vicious political feuding which has sparked protests outside the presidential office, now into their sixth full day.

The opposition has called a huge protest there for Saturday as it steps up its demands for a new election, a move emphatically rejected by Chen, who won by fewer than 30,000 votes out of 13.25 million cast.

The island's biggest ally and arms supplier, the United States, has yet to publicly recognise Chen as the winner despite congratulating its voters on coming out in such large numbers with turnout reaching 80 percent.

But analysts said Chen was in a dominant position as splits start to emerge among the opposition and with election officials due to officially declare him the victor later Friday. The island's election law requires the announcement to be made within seven days of victory, according to officials.

However, the move is likely to trigger a renewed attempt to throw out the result through the courts by the opposition which had its claim rejected earlier this week because no official declaration had been made.

Opposition leaders have produced little evidence to back up their suspicions of vote-rigging and over the shooting on the final day of campaigning that left Chen and Vice President Annette Lu with minor injuries.

Chen has angrily denied suggestions of a fix which he said was a slur on his integrity. But he sought to ease tensions with protestors who have been camped outside his office since late Saturday. "I know how they feel and I don't have any complaints but only tolerance and respect," he said.

The bitter exchanges come after a closely-fought election campaign dominated by the island's fraught relations with China. China claims the island off its southeast coast as part of its territory despite the two sides having split in 1949 at the end of civil war when nationalist forces were driven from the mainland by the communists.

Beijing was furious when the pro-independence Chen called a referendum to run alongside Taiwan's presidential election, which asked voters to back plans to strengthen military defences against hundreds of missiles pointed at the island and a push for peace talks. China leaders saw the move as clearing the way for a future public vote on independence, a move it has declared it would oppose by military force. The referendum failed when fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters took part with the opposition leadership calling for a boycott.

Chen has said since winning re-election he would seek to maintain the status quo between the two sides but analysts said the path he would plot over his final four years in office remained unclear. Taiwan's presidents are limited to two terms in power and Chen said Thursday he was free to act without the pressure of having to campaign for the top job once again.