Taiwan's president calls for vote recount

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian tried to defuse a political crisis Tuesday, calling for a recount in an election he narrowly won just one day after a bizarre shooting slightly wounded him and his vice president. But Chen's party and the powerful opposition couldn't agree how to start the recount, and thousands of protesters continued to camp out in front of the Presidential Office demanding that the process begin immediately.

The crowd's shouts and chanting could be heard in the background as the president gave his first televised address to the nation since his re-election Saturday.

Chen said he was eager for a speedy recount.

"I will accept it 100 percent, absolutely accept it," he said in a reflective and somber tone.

Chen's challenger, Lien Chan, has argued that the election was marred by numerous irregularities, though Lien has provided little evidence to prove this. Lien has also suggested that the mysterious shooting Friday that wounded Chen may have been staged to gain sympathy votes.

The bullet grazed Chen's abdomen, while Vice President Annette Lu was hit in the knee as they were cruising the streets in an open-top Jeep during the final day of campaigning.

No suspects have been arrested, but officials have released hospital photos, DNA tests and ballistics reports as evidence it happened.

The president, who ran on a platform of standing up to rival China, won with only 50.1 percent of the vote, while challenger Lien, who pushed a more conciliatory approach toward mainland leaders, got 49.9 percent.

The election also involved Taiwan's first islandwide referendum: a vote that focused on China's military threat and possible peace talks with Beijing. The referendum, spearheaded by Chen, failed to pass because more than half the voters joined an opposition-led boycott of the vote.

On Tuesday, China's official Xinhua News Agency sided with the opposition and accused Chen of "political fraud" and trying to "kidnap the will of the Taiwanese people" with the referendum.

Although the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, Beijing insists that self-ruled Taiwan is a part of China that must be unified eventually. Chinese leaders suspect that Chen's referendum was just a warm-up for a vote on a permanent split.

In Taiwan, the referendum controversy quickly faded as Lien's campaign began challenging the election results.

Chen said he resented the election fraud allegations.

"They have labeled me a vote-rigging president, and this is the biggest humiliation to my character," he said in a voice that was raspier than usual. He also said that it was "extremely regrettable" that some people were accusing him of staging the shooting.

Taiwan's courts have said it could take up to six months to respond to Lien's demand for a recount and a separate attempt to nullify the election. Lien's biggest complaint about the vote was that an unusually high number of ballots -- 330,000, or 10 times Chen's margin of victory -- were ruled invalid.

Chen said that the high number might have been a result of stricter regulations that were used for the first time. The rules required voters to register their candidate preferences by putting a chop mark squarely inside a box by the politician's name. Ballots with stamps that crossed the boundary lines were deemed invalid.

Ruling party lawmakers proposed resolving the election dispute by amending the presidential election law to trigger a recount whenever a candidate wins by less than 1 percent. The party said the law could be applied retroactively to Saturday's election.

But opposition parties rejected the proposal, insisting a solution must address both the recount issue and the investigation of the mysterious shooting and its affect on the vote.

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