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Taiwan chaos: Chen wins poll, results disputed
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Taiwan has been in chaos since President Chen Shui-bian, wounded in an assassination attempt, apparently won the close and bitterly contested presidential election by the slimmest of margins - 30,500 votes out of a total of 13.25 million cast. Protests

Chen Shui-bian: 6,471,970 (50.11 percent)
Lien Chan: 6,442,452 (49.89 percent)
Invalid ballots: 337,297
Turnout: 80.28 percent Source: Central Election Commission

by governing party and opposition camps have erupted across the island of 23 million people, considered a breakaway province by China.

The controversial referendum on Chinese missile deployment and Taiwan's relations with the mainland was defeated - because less than the required 50 percent of participating voters cast ballots. China has denounced the referendum - any referendum that gives legal standing to the voters of what it calls a rogue province - as an attempt to "split the motherland".

The presidential election results have been challenged, and the opposition pan-blue alliance filed motions for a recount in both the Taiwan High Court and the Administrative Supreme Court. Taiwan's High Court ordered all ballot boxes sealed, as the opposition demanded a recount.

Protests erupted across the island after incumbent President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) narrowly defeated presidential challenger Lien Chan of the pan-blue alliance and chairman of the once-mighty Kuomintang (KMT) that ruled Taiwan, often brutally, for 50 years.

Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were slightly wounded in an apparent assassination attempt Friday and may have benefited from both a sympathy vote and an anti-violence vote in the close election.

Opposition urges supporters to protest
Lien refused to concede the election, and in a shocking speech he appeared to urge his supporters to take to the streets to pressure the government to annul the results.

Fearing violence the DPP cancelled its victory party outside its Taipei election headquarters and asked its followers to disperse quickly and quietly. There were some reports of DPP supporters attacked and beaten by angry pan-blues in Taipei's East District and police feared trouble on Sunday.

In the wake of Lien's political call to arms, a huge crowd of pan-blues remained outside the alliance's Taipei headquarters all night as part of an angry protest which would continue, the pan-blue leaders said, until there was a recount of the vote.

Motions for a recount were filed with both the Taiwan High Court and the Administrative Supreme Court late Saturday night.

In a speech Saturday night, Lien said: "If we are to keep quiet now, how could we be held accountable to history and future generations? For these reasons I've decided, and the alliance as a whole has agreed with me, to raise a motion to have the election declared invalid ... Given that the election was filled with a series of suspicious events, we demand that the Central Election Commission seize and seal all ballot boxes for a recount."

'Invalid! Invalid!'
By Sunday noon huge crowds had assembled in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei and in the cities of Taichung and Kaohsiung. The pan-blues had urged supporters to join a monster protest in front of the Presidential Office on Sunday afternoon and police feared the demonstration might turn violent.

A near-hysterical crowd chanted, "Invalid! Invalid!" - their anger whipped into a frenzy by KMT deputy spokeswoman Kuo Su-chun and KMT Taipei City Councilor Wang Hao.

The election took place only a day after an assassination attempt against President Chen Shui-bian, who suffered a grazing bullet wound across the abdomen. Opposition supporters have suggested that the attack was a DPP-contrived stunt, calculated to win a sympathy vote.

It is a measure of the irrationality that has now gripped the opposition that in the face of common-sense arguments that one does not shoot someone in the stomach as a stunt, many now claim in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that Chen was never, in fact, injured at all. They have demanded that he present himself and publicly display his wound.

As for the DPP, Chen gave a dignified victory speech. He did not gloat and he stressed the need to heal the huge divisions in society that the amazingly bitter election campaign had opened up. The DPP then asked supporters to go home to avoid possible trouble.

To an outsider, this election debacle is evocative of the disputed US presidential vote in Florida in 2002 - with Taiwan's ugly ethnic politics thrown in for good measure. There is good reason, however, to believe that they are not too similar.

Though Lien is demanding a recount, and a recount will almost certainly be granted, it is hard to imagine that it is going to make a lot of difference to the final vote total. Of particular concern to the opposition is that the number of declared invalid votes - 337,000 - was 10 times the margin of the DPP victory.

Taiwan voting fast, local, technology-free
But Taiwan is not Florida with its antiquated voting machines and hanging or pregnant chads. Taiwan voting is technology-free: voters must use a plastic stamp or "chop" to imprint an ink mark signifying the candidate of their choice. This leaves little doubt about voting intentions.

Perhaps even more important is the way votes are counted in Taiwan. Polling stations usually cover fairly small districts, with the result that although the vote is tabulated quickly there can be a great deal of openness in the counting. Votes are pulled from the ballot boxes, displayed to the assembled observers who usually include party representatives, the ballot is read out and then added to the running total of whichever side it supports. The public nature of this process means that there is little disagreement over what is or is not a valid vote or which votes go to which candidates.

Given this public, consensual process, it is hard to imagine a recount will alter the vote tally significantly. There were a high number of invalid votes because one activist groupe had been urging voters to cast invalid ballots in order to show their dissatisfaction with the whole political process.

The Invalid Ballot Alliance, which advocated invalid ballots, is an alliance of labor rights and social groups advocating for the disadvantaged. It encouraged voters to cast invalid ballots in order to protest the dominance of politics by well-funded political parties, demonstrated by the fact that both the presidential candidates were rich men.

The pro-Beijing opposition had, like Beijing, been deeply opposed to the referendum process. They had first urged a boycott and noncooperation by election officials; then they realized that such a boycott by officials would be illegal and criminal; then they urged official passive resistance and voters not to cast ballots in the referendum.

Theories abound
Given that a recount is highly unlikely to change the result of the election, it is difficult to understand Lien's strategy.

Theories abound concerning Lien's "strategy". Some say that he was brought up within an authoritarian system and cannot accept the possibility that his party could lose an election. Other say he wants to promote civil strife, perhaps even civil war, so that he can appeal to China to use its military to intervene and thereby overthrow Taiwan's political system. Still others say that both Lien and his running mate James Soong are likely, unless they had won office, to find themselves embroiled in long legal cases, Lien for tax evasion and Soong over NT$248 million (US$7.4 million) he is accused of pocketing from KMT party funds when he was party general secretary. According to this theory, Lien's behavior Saturday night is part of a high-stakes attempt to get some kind of legal immunity for himself and Soong in return for calling off their angry supporters.

In the current atmosphere, virtually no thought has been given to the fact that the referendum, which was run in tandem with the presidential election, failed to get enough votes - it needed 8.2 million - to be considered valid. President Chen had personally promoted the referendum that contained two questions:

  • Should China be asked to retarget nearly 500 missiles pointed at Taiwan and, if it refuses, whether Taiwan should seek advanced military defense systems;
  • Should Taiwan reopen a dialogue with the mainland in an effort to improve relations.

    The situation in Taipei remained tense Sunday evening and the DPP urged supporters to stay home and off the streets.

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  • Mar 22, 2004

    Referendum planning a travesty of democracy (Mar 20, '04) 

    Taiwan poll: The sound and the fury? (Mar 18, '04)

    The high-stakes battle for Taiwan's destiny (Mar 17, '04)


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