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Taiwanese President Narrowly Reelected

Opponent Rejects Result; China Referendum Nullified

By Philip P. Pan

Sunday, March 21, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 21 -- Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian won reelection by a slim margin Saturday, but his opponent refused to accept the results, accused him of foul play and demanded a recount, throwing the island's political system into turmoil one day after the president was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt.

If it stands, Chen's victory would be a major setback for China, which refused to open talks with him during his first term and had condemned his pro-independence policies. China claims sovereignty over this self-governing island of 23 million and threatens to seize it by force if it formally declares independence.

While Chen's opponent, Nationalist Party leader Lien Chan, promised a conciliatory approach to China, Chen has aggressively promoted Taiwan's independence, and both U.S. and Chinese officials have expressed concern he might provoke a war.

In a win for China, though, election authorities nullified the results of a controversial referendum championed by Chen because too few voters took part in it. Beijing had condemned the referendum -- which asked voters about strengthening Taiwan's military and opening talks with China -- as an attempt to set a precedent for an island-wide vote on independence, and persuaded the United States, Japan and several other nations to criticize Chen for going ahead with it.

"The referendum turned out to be invalid," said a statement by the Chinese government. "Facts have proven that this illegal act goes against the will of the people. Any attempt to separate Taiwan from China is doomed to failure."

Chen won 50.1 percent of the presidential vote, barely edging out Lien, who won 49.9 percent, the island's election commission said. The margin of victory was only 29,518 votes in a race in which nearly 13 million people, or 80 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots.

Before the final count was announced, Lien appeared before a large crowd outside his campaign headquarters and declared on national television he would challenge the validity of the election. He cited irregularities in the ballot counting and unspecified "doubts" about Friday's shooting, which may have swayed voters toward Chen in the final hours of a tight race.

Some opposition lawmakers have alleged, without any evidence, that Chen somehow staged the shooting in an eleventh-hour bid for sympathy from voters. The president and his vice president, Annette Lu, suffered flesh wounds from shots fired at their motorcade as they campaigned in the southern city of Tainan.

"Its impact on this election was direct," Lien said, who described the timing of the shooting on the eve of the election as suspicious. "The doubts surrounding it give us one impression: This was an unfair election."

Lien also raised questions about 337,297 ballots that election authorities declared invalid, more than double the number of ballots invalidated in Taiwan's last presidential election. His campaign filed lawsuits early Sunday demanding that ballot boxes from all 13,000 polling places across Taiwan be seized and sealed pending a full investigation, and Taiwan's High Court granted the request.

The opposition's challenge to the election may test the strength of Taiwan's democratic system, which managed its first transfer of power between political parties only four years ago. In particular, Taiwan's judiciary, which has been asked to rule on the vote, is generally held in low regard by the public and rarely serves as the final arbiter in political disputes.

Police unrolled barbed wire and set up barriers to maintain order as crowds gathered at courthouses and other government buildings across the island. Television showed clashes in the cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung. In Taichung, in the center of the island, hundreds of people pushed over a metal barrier at a courthouse, shoved through a police line and began smashing windows. Many chanted, "Check the ballots!"

"Any attempt to instigate riots or create instability in society will be harmful to the interests of Taiwan, and we condemn such actions," said Frank Hsieh, the mayor of Kaohsiung.

Speaking to a joyous crowd of thousands in the streets outside his campaign headquarters in Taipei, Chen declined to address Lien's accusations and claimed a full victory. He urged his supporters not to gloat and reached out to Lien and his vice presidential candidate, James Soong, by expressing his "highest respects." "The election is over, and even though there are people who have different ideologies and beliefs, from now on we must all embrace each other," Chen said. "This is not only my appeal. It is a solemn request. The whole world is watching Taiwan's democracy."

Chen assumed a more moderate tone toward China than during his campaign. He repeated his call for China to remove missiles aimed at Taiwan but refrained from mentioning a promise to write a new constitution for the island, a move that Beijing has described as equivalent to a declaration of independence and a potential cause for war."We sincerely ask the Beijing authorities across the strait to view the election result from a positive perspective and to accept the democratic decision of the Taiwanese people," Chen said. "Let us together open the door to peaceful and stable cross-strait dialogue and negotiations."

Chen played down the failure of the referendum, saying that citizens did not fully understand its "democratic value" and noting that it still made history as the first to be held in Taiwan.

Only 45 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the referendum, short of the majority needed for it to be valid. Supporters of Lien and Soong had boycotted the referendum, arguing Chen did not have the legal authority to call the vote. Of those who took the time to participate in the referendum after voting for Chen or Lien, more than 90 percent said yes to the two questions: whether to try to set up a framework for direct talks with China, and whether to buy more advanced weapons if China refused to move about 500 missiles aimed at the island.

Senior officials in Chen's Democratic Progressive Party said they did not object to Lien exercising his right under Taiwan's election laws to ask a court for a recount. But they said Lien had yet to present any concrete evidence of wrongdoing that might persuade a judge to grant the request.

Bikhim Hsiao, a legislator in the Democratic Progressive Party leadership, attributed the large number of invalid ballots to a campaign by a coalition of independent politicians who had urged voters to file invalid ballots as a protest against the dominant political parties. She expressed concern that statements made by Lien and Soong challenging the election could prompt rioting by their supporters. "It has been a painful campaign for many people, and we are urging everyone to remain calm," she said. She said security had been increased around the president, the vice president and their families. Police said they had not detained any suspects in the shooting, and government officials said they were treating the case as a criminal investigation, not as an attack that involved China.

Early Sunday, Lien and Soong led a crowd of supporters on a march to the presidential office, where they sang the national anthem soon after sunrise.