Q&A: Assassination attempt rattles Taiwan's elections

The Monitor's Robert Marquand examines the political climate after a failed attempt on President Chen's life.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu were shot Friday while campaigning ahead of Saturday's national election. Both were released from a hospital after sustaining minor wounds. The Monitor's Robert Marquand has reported extensively from China and Taiwan. He spoke from Taipei to csmonitor.com's Josh Burek.

Is the election going ahead?

There's been no discussion of cancelling the election. The election council, which governs the rules, has stated that they won't cancel the election unless one of the candidates dies. So there's no chance of them cancelling the election. The election will continue.

How is the assassination attempt affecting voters' mood just hours before polls open? Will it bolster Chen's re-election bid? What about the country's controversial referendum?

Well, this is a question that is quite confusing here in Taipei and throughout Taiwan at the moment. Chen will probably get some sympathy vote out of this. To most electoral cognoscenti, the bottom line is that the opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) - led by Lien Chan and James Soong - were ahead in the informal polling by as much as 800,000 to 1.5 million votes. People here seem to feel like, if that's true, while Chen may get a bounce, it won't be enough to change or influence the vote. That's the essential feeling on the street.

I had dinner tonight with a Taiwanese family. They're very strong supporters of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). They expressed the hardcore pro-Taiwanese sentiment that the referendum is very important - perhaps even more so than the election. One grandfather I spoke to said the referendum is so crucial because the world needs to see that Taiwan will stand up to China. The KMT people feel completely the opposite. They don't even want the referendum.

Who do Taiwanese voters suspect might be behind the attack?

That's the trillion-dollar question. This has turned into a huge rumor story. People at the KMT party are sending out text messages and a blizzard of e-mail messages saying, don't watch TV, it's all propaganda. They are sending out blanket e-mails to journalists, saying the whole attempt looked very fishy. A lot of them think the assassination was staged - a last-minute election ploy to gain sympathy votes. The DPP is holding press conferences trying to refute this. The assailants could be any number of people. Some sources suggest the shooters may have been motivated by a private, personal vendetta.

There has been no history of major violence in Taiwanese elections to speak of. This event has really shocked people. Tonight, the entire country is sitting in front of their TVs, instead of being out on the streets in expected election rallies, because campaigning has ceased. My sense is that this thing has happened too close to the elections for it to be resolved. They're going to vote Saturday, but it's possible that the bad feelings may begin to build up, if in fact, this turns into a story of allegations and counterallegations. If this turns into a story about a fishy setup designed to earn votes, things could get quite ugly. If Chen is reelected, the opposition KMT will be very unhappy. The election will conclude Saturday, but the rumor story - the what actually happened story - could intensify in coming days, especially if Chen is reelected.

Chen was campaigning in the southern city of Tainan. Is there any significance to this region?

Well, yes. The stronghold of DPP, the pro-Taiwanese solidarity crowd is in south Taiwan. Anything south of midpoint Taiwan is hardcore pro-Taiwan, pro-DPP, so Chen is on home soil there. In fact, he was campaigning in his home district. He grew up in a small village near where he was shot. Interestingly, Tainan was also where his wife, who is now crippled, was run over in suspicious circumstances during a previous Chen campaign many years ago.

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