Doubts dog close-shave Taiwan victory

TAIWAN’S president Chen Shui-bian was celebrating a narrow election victory last night - a day after surviving a bizarre assassination attempt, but the opposition immediately challenged the result, saying it had "suspicions" about both the shooting and the vote.

Adding to the unprecedented election drama was a separate referendum asking Taiwanese whether the island should strengthen its defences if China refuses to withdraw missiles targeting the territory and whether to seek peace talks with Beijing. It failed due to lack of support from voters.

Chen achieved re-election by just 30,000 votes, beating Nationalist party leader Lien Chan, after a cliffhanger campaign. Fireworks boomed in the night sky as ruling party lawmaker Hsiao Bi-khim told supporters at Chen’s headquarters: "Today’s victory is a victory for democracy and a victory for Asia."

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But minutes after Chen’s party declared victory, Lien told a massive crowd that he planned to challenge the results. "This was an unfair election," Lien said. "If we stayed silent I don’t know how we or our generation could face up to history, to the democratic system, our forefathers and offspring."

He demanded that the Central Election Commission seal all ballot boxes in the 13,000 polling booths around the island so that a recount could be done.

Lien also said the shooting of the president was suspicious, and its influence on the vote should be investigated.

On the eve of the vote, gunfire hit Chen in the abdomen and vice-president Annette Lu in the knee as they rode through the southern town of Tainan, waving to supporters from an open-top Jeep.

They both walked out of the hospital with minor injuries hours after the shooting. The police have made no arrests.

Lien said: "Up to now we have not had a clear explanation of the truth of yesterday’s shooting. Its impact on this election needs no words, and its impact was direct. The doubts surrounding it give us one common impression - this is an unfair election."

He also attacked Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party in the latest angry words in what has been an acrimonious campaign.

"They have taken too many actions that are unacceptable - there are too many suspicions. Not one but a series of actions that have created a cloud of suspicion," he said in reference to the shooting.

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Given the volatile emotions surrounding the campaign and the unprecedented demand for a recount, Lien also called on Taiwan to be calm. "I must sincerely call on everyone to be rational and cool-headed," he said.

Jason Hu, mayor of Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, added to the controversy saying: "A bullet was fired at President Chen but it ended up hurting us." But Joseph Wu, a senior presidential office official, said there were "no sympathy votes".

Wu said his party’s internal polls showed Chen leading by two percentage points before the shots were fired.

Earlier yesterday Chen slowly strolled into a voting station in the capital, Taipei, surrounded by bodyguards armed with submachine guns.

He smiled slightly as he dropped his vote in the box and told reporters gunshots would never derail Taiwan’s democracy. "It doesn’t matter where the bullet came from, A-bian won’t be struck down," Chen said, referring to himself by his nickname. "And even if I were struck down, this could not strike down the aspirations of Taiwan’s 23 million people for democracy and liberty."

Meanwhile, China said yesterday it was following developments in the shooting of rival Taiwan’s president.

But it didn’t immediately respond to the island’s presidential election or the referendum on the mainland’s military threat against Taiwan, which Lien has denounced. A two-sentence statement issued yesterday by Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles relations with the island, was non-committal, reflecting the communist government’s dilemma over how to avoid boosting the popularity of Chen, whom it reviles as a traitor.

State media didn’t tell the Chinese public that Taiwanese were voting for their president. The China News Service, a state agency aimed at foreign readers, said on its website late yesterday that polls had closed. But it didn’t identify the candidates and called the event the "Taiwan area leader’s election", emphasising Beijing’s rejection of its legitimacy.

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The mainland had denounced the referendum, which asked voters whether Taiwan should step up its defences in response to hundreds of Chinese missiles pointed at the island. Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as its territory and was worried the vote might set a precedent for one on Taiwanese independence.

China’s statement on the failed assassination attempt came more than 10 hours after the attack.

As messages of sympathy poured in from other Asian governments, Beijing’s statement notably failed to join them in wishing the Taiwanese leader a quick recovery. Taiwan and China have had no official relations since they split in 1949 amid civil war. Beijing accuses Chen of taking steps toward formal independence, which it claims would lead to war.

Analysts said China was struggling to find a response that would not boost Chen’s chances in the election by making him look sympathetic.

"This is a moment of such delicacy that they’re surely looking for the upside on anything they might say, and they’re having trouble finding it," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China politics specialist at the University of Michigan.

Past Chinese attempts to influence the island’s presidential politics have ended in failure.

During Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, the Chinese military tried to intimidate voters by test-firing missiles into the sea nearby. That backfired by boosting support for then-incumbent president Lee Teng-hui, who was re-elected.

Chen’s upset election victory in 2000 apparently took Beijing by surprise, and China waited several days before issuing its first statement. This year, analysts said China tried to keep its options open, preparing for a win by either Chen or challenger Lien Chan, who some believe would be more conciliatory toward Beijing.

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