TAIPEI, TAIWAN — In a striking reversal of expectations, President Chen Shui-bian was narrowly returned to power Saturday by Taiwan voters after surviving an assassination attempt on Friday in a contested victory over the Kuomintang Party (KMT) of Lien Chan.
But Mr. Chen was also dealt a setback when too few voters (45 percent) cast a ballot on behalf of a controversial referendum calling for China to remove its missiles and for the Taiwan government to purchase new weaponry.
The winning margin for Chen's pro-Taiwan party was about 30,000 votes among some 13 million cast. It was the closest margin and the largest turnout, 80.2 percent, in Taiwan's brief democratic history -- and it comes amid a refusal of Lien to concede, that could throw the tiny island into a political crisis.
The chairperson of Taiwan's Central Election Commission, George S. C. Huang, announced Saturday evening that Chen had won. A somewhat weary but ebullient Chen gave an acceptance speech, mostly in ethnic Taiwanese dialect, standing in front of a huge and deafening crowd at his downtown headquarters. He called for an improvement in relations with mainland China, including dialogue.
However, coming on the heels of a bizarre shooting of both Chen and his running mate Annette Liu in the southern city of Tainan yesterday, and a refusal by Lien to concede such a close outcome - analysts feel that Taiwan, which has prided itself on public decorum and order, must now deal with an unusual period of public confusion.
Lien, speaking dispassionately in front of a modest crowd of mostly older voters at his campaign headquarters Saturday night asserted that the election was "wu xiao," or invalid. Lien has seven days to file a brief with the high court here, against the election commission, setting up a legal process that will run at least several weeks.
Lien implied that circumstances surrounding two shots fired at Chen's motorcade yesterday, one of which struck Chen on the abdomen, and that resulted in a shut down of all campaigning yesterday evening, were suspicious. Such implications may be difficult to prove in court. KMT officials are more likely to raise doubts about what appears to be a very high number, 340,000, of damaged or unreadable ballots. Should the KMT muster enough evidence of malfeasance the court could reverse the election.
Chen supporters were quick to call Lien a "poor loser," as one put it, since he offered little evidence of actual malfeasance or irregularity. "Lien can't just assert an invalid election after he loses, or every loser under the sun could do that. He has to show evidence," says a Taipei Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporter at the rally.
KMT insiders had privately felt confident of a win, and some party officials and pollsters, and even a host of gambling bookies, were predicting victory margins anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million.
Bevin Chu, a KMT supporter who works at a design firm in Taipei, was quite angry when interviewed Saturday evening outside KMT headquarters. After the assassination attempt yesterday, he felt the elections should have been postponed, pending an investigation.
"We are in limbo. This is not a legitimate president," he says. "We were winning by 1.2 million votes in the polls. For the DPP to steal the election at the 11th hour is Third World Banana Republic politics."