Taiwan's high-stakes election drama

Taiwan's high court this week will consider the merits of opposition claims that the president's reelection was a fraud.

Taiwan is in the midst of a postelection political crisis, with the losing Kuomintang Party staging a noisy sit-in in front of the presidential palace with posters asking "Where's my vote?" As early as Monday, the high court may appoint a judge to decide if evidence exists to block a May 20 inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian.

Sunday's protests followed a dramatic 48 hours in which Mr. Chen weathered a gunshot wound and won by a narrow 30,000 vote margin in the island's third national elections - which were immediately contested by opposition candidate Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT) as being fraudulent. Charges of dirty tricks and conspiracies, has created a sour mood among disgruntled KMT voters and threatens civic confidence.

Still, the elections underscore how far Taiwan has moved toward a politically separate identity from mainland China. And observers say that if the dispute plays out in favor of Chen, who has galvanized voters on a platform of Taiwan sovereignty, Beijing, Washington, and Taipei will need great diplomatic skills to handle the high-tension dynamics expected between them over the next four years. Had the less reform-minded and more pro-China KMT won, relations between China and Taiwan are thought to have been easier to manage.

Beijing has long threatened war if coveted Taiwan moves too far towards a separate status. China's state-run media has so far reported little about the campaign, the assassination attempt, or the outcome. Beijing is waiting for the KMT's legal dispute to be resolved before making official comments, sources say.

Sunday Chen and Mr. Lien met separately with Douglas Paul, head of the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taiwan. Washington, as the security guarantor of Taiwan in its long running dispute with China, carries much influence in Taipei; sources say that the White House has no interest in a protracted election dispute, though it has stopped short of congratulating Chen.

"If [Chen] thinks that this election is a victory mandate and he pushes forward programs [such as a proposed constitution], that will trouble the US," says Taiwan expert Shelley Rigger of Davison College, "the conversations between Chen and AIT will be difficult."

In December, when President Chen proposed Taiwan's first referendum on China, President Bush openly rebuked him during a White House Oval Office meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Now, say experts, the US must manage its security assurances to Taiwan, and its professed support of the island's rapidly changing conception of itself away from one-party rule - at the same time balancing a US desire for improved relations with a China that is divided between war hawks and moderates on Taiwan.

In recent days, Beijing has prepared a series of moves to pressure Taipei and Washington had Chen prevailed - including a possible "national unification law." Should military hard-liners predominate, the law could set a deadline for the island to agree to become part of China. Much could depend on how vigorously Chen pursues a new Taiwan constitution - a direct refuting of Beijing - by 2006.

Yet even had Chen lost, the vibrancy of the election, its theme of a Taiwanese national identity touted by both parties, and its introduction of a controversial voter referendum signals a deepening of self-rule that will require attention by both China and the US, experts say.

"Three times during the campaign, Lien Chan had to publicly ask Beijing not to interfere in Taiwan politics. He said it won't help," says Byron S.J. Weng of National Chi Nan University. "Democracy in past years has produced a new state of affairs in Taiwan." A KMT loss could well end Lien's hold on the party, and end the viability of the 51-year old KMT itself.

In a blow to Chen, the two-question referendum did not pass. Voters were asked whether China should remove missiles aimed at Taiwan and whether to begin a cross-Straits dialogue. However, while 46 percent voted on questions that needed a 50 percent approval to pass - only 3 percent actually voted against the referendum.

The election resulted in the closest victory margin and the largest turnout, 80.2 percent, in Taiwan's brief democratic history. It is also proving the most rancorous. The KMT is disputing the outcome on the basis of three issues: the mystery shooting of Chen and Vice President Annette Lu in a motorcade in the final day of campaigning, some 340,000 destroyed ballots, and the ordering of some 200,000 officials to work on voting day after Chen was shot.

Experts agree the assassination attempt brought a major sympathy vote to Chen in the final hour. Rumors, suspicions, and conspiracy theories are flooding the country about what happened and who did it.

Both Chen and Ms. Lu survived what appear to be two shots fired by one or two persons as the candidates stood in the back seat of an open jeep Friday. The forensic evidence - a bullet grazing Chen's abdomen, a shot through a windshield that nicked Lu's knee - suggests that the shots weren't fired with the intent to kill, since the aim was low. Police have ruled out an attack by China. Theories include a staged event by Chen's party, a crackpot's small-time grievance, or a Mafioso style near-miss intended to sway election gambling proceeds.

The damaged ballots case will be hard to prove, given a preelection movement asking workers to destroy ballots in protest of a race with candidates not sympathetic to labor.

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