- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s High Court ordered the sealing of all ballot boxes this morning, one day after President Chen Shui-bian claimed victory in a close race that his opponent said was marred by spoiled ballots and a mysterious assassination attempt.

As violent protests erupted across the island, the High Court said it wanted to preserve evidence. But no recount was immediately ordered, despite challenger Lien Chan’s demand for one. There were 13,000 polling places on the island for the presidential election.

The court order came after Mr. Lien, a former vice president, said more than 330,000 ballots from yesterday’s vote were spoiled and there were too many unanswered questions about the assassination attempt on the president and his running mate, Vice President Annette Lu.

The candidates were slightly wounded by gunfire while campaigning Friday in southern Taiwan.

Mr. Chen won the race yesterday by 30,000 votes, but he didn’t get approval in a referendum for strengthening the island’s military.

The ballot question was deemed a failure because not enough voters responded. China, which had opposed the referendum as a rehearsal for a vote on Taiwan independence, welcomed its defeat.

Protests erupted across the island, as thousands took to the streets demanding that officials investigate suspected irregularities in the election.

Judge Wen Yao-yuan, court spokesman, announced the sealing order on television early today as hundreds of angry Taiwanese gathered outside the presidential office waving flags and blaring air horns to protest the election’s outcome. However, the protesters remained peaceful.

Mr. Chen won the presidential ballot with 50.1 percent of the vote, the Central Election Commission said.

Mr. Lien of the Nationalist Party came away with 49.9 percent. About 13 million ballots were cast. Turnout was 80 percent of eligible voters, the commission said.

The reason for the opposition’s protest was the high number of ballots declared invalid, a total of 337,297, almost triple the 122,278 voided in 2000 and 11 times Mr. Chen’s margin of victory.

Riot police were deployed as the government tried to head off a political crisis that could pose a serious challenge to Taiwan’s young democracy, which has held only two other direct presidential elections in the past eight years.

Crowds became violent in the third-largest city, Taichung. Hundreds of people pushed over a metal barrier at a courthouse, shoved their way through a police line and began smashing windows with their bare hands. Many chanted, “Check the ballots” as police tried to restore order.

The anger and scuffles were part of two days of political drama that began with an attempt to assassinate Mr. Chen and Mrs. Lu as they campaigned in southern Taiwan.

A bullet grazed Mr. Chen’s stomach and Mrs. Lu was hit in a knee as they rode in a jeep. Neither was seriously injured, and police have not identified any suspects.

Before the election, Mr. Lien said he trusted that Taiwanese voters would be rational and not let the shooting cause them to cast a sympathy vote for Mr. Chen. But after he lost the election, Mr. Lien changed his mind.

“This was an unfair election,” he told a crowd outside his campaign headquarters. He led about 1,000 supporters in a march on the presidential office this morning to demand a recount.

Some political observers suggested that Mr. Chen’s shooting was staged to swing the election in his favor.

“The gunshots looked very fishy,” said Su Chi, a senior campaign official.

Mr. Lien did not go that far, but he demanded a full investigation of the attack’s effect on the election. He also said that the invalidated ballots should be inspected.

It would have been hard to find candidates more different than Mr. Lien and Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen, 53, grew up in a poor village and graduated from Taiwan’s top law school. He got into politics by defending dissidents during the era of martial law, which ended in 1987. He has been a legislator and mayor of Taipei.

Mr. Lien, 67, belongs to one of Taiwan’s richest families. The former political science professor served as an ambassador, foreign minister, prime minister and vice president in the former Nationalist government.

Beijing has threatened to attack if Taiwan seeks a permanent separation.

The Nationalists argued that Mr. Chen did not have the legal authority to call the referendum, and they successfully rallied most people to skip the vote.

Mr. Chen shrugged off the defeat in his victory speech, saying people did not seem to understand the referendum’s question. But he appealed to China to respect the election.

“It is a new era for solidarity and harmony and a new era for peace across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Chen said. “We sincerely ask the Beijing authorities across the strait to view the election results from a positive perspective, to accept the democratic decision of the Taiwanese people.”

But Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement the referendum failed because it went “against the will of the people,” China’s government-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

“Any attempt to separate Taiwan from China is doomed to failure,” the office said.

Meanwhile, the Friday assassination attempt on Mr. Chen is being treated as a criminal case and not a conspiracy or an attack that involved China, prosecutor Wang Sen-jung said yesterday. No suspects have been arrested, but authorities have offered a $390,000 reward for information leading to their capture.

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