As vote turmoil subsides, Taiwan's Chen presses ahead

Unable to produce compelling evidence of malfeasance, the former ruling Nationalist Party of Taiwan is now holding onto a slim hope that a proposed recount will return them to power - after one of the most acrimonious elections in Taiwan's young democratic history.

The March 20 vote saw President Chen Shui-bian reelected a day after he was wounded in a shooting while campaigning. Mr. Chen held a 0.2 margin, or 30,000 votes, in a bitterly fought contest that was widely seen in Asia as a choice between the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) and President Chen's separatist party.

Despite a series of legal challenges that could last months, the KMT is beginning to prepare itself for a loss, analysts say. The contested outcome appears to be entering a quieter phase - evolving from street protests that blocked the center of Taipei into a series of meetings among aides, the legislature, and the courts.

Wednesday evening the KMT filed a petition for a recount. Chen immediately signed a formal agreement, meaning that the recount could take place quickly without arguments in front of the High Court, which set the hearing for Friday.

Since the March 20 poll, the dynamics have been intense in Taiwan, with every day bringing new allegations, countercharges, protests, and petitions. The stakes are high on all sides: The KMT, which joined with the People's First Party of James Soong, now faces a change in leadership from Lien Chan. If it loses, the party could be in disarray, and could lose seats in the upcoming December elections. The KMT and People's First Party currently control the legislature, and can block Chen's aggressive agenda.

Officials for Chen's Democratic Progressive Party say they do not fear a recount. Earlier this week, a US forensics expert examined Chen's abdomen where a bullet left a four-inch gash - and said the wound appeared to be authentic, dashing at least part of the KMT's allegations of a fake assassination attempt.

"With every day that goes by without a change in [evidence], I feel the announced result will stand," says Denny Roy, a Taiwan specialist at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "My e-mail is flooded every morning with lots of stories about election details and challenges. But I feel like in a couple of days it won't matter."

Last week the Taiwan Central Election Commission gave a certificate of victory to Chen and Annette Lu, the vice presidential candidate. The United States formally congratulated Chen, spurring a withering rhetorical blast from China, which claims Taiwan for its own, to the effect that "China will not sit idly by" while there is chaos in the streets of Taiwan.

In recent days, Beijing has said little, despite some 350,000 KMT protesters in Taipei last Saturday. Yet the protests have died down, and the small core of angry demonstrators has been cordoned inside the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, blocks away from the president's office.

For Chen, the election was a fight for the viability of his ethnic Taiwan platform. The narrow victory, and a divided government, is not the mandate he had hoped for in putting forward a bold agenda, experts say. This week, however, Chen told the Washington Post that the election affirmed an "internal consensus" on the island of 23 million that it was an "independent, sovereign" state. He also vowed to adopt a new constitution, despite warnings from China that such a move could lead to war.

The White House has expressed concern that Chen would take actions that would drag the US into a conflict with China. For its part, Beijing would have to reevaluate whether or not it can engage Chen. For the past four years, it has chosen not to deal with him.

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