Impeachment, assassination attempt make for strange elections

Monday, March 22, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The mysterious shooting of Taiwan's president, followed by his disputed victory in a close vote, have added more twists to an Asian election season already taking strange turns.

In South Korea, huge protests have erupted over a presidential impeachment in parliament that resembled a brawl. In Malaysia, political rivals both claimed God was on their side before voters chose national and state lawmakers Sunday.

The bizarre politics are testing some of the region's young democracies in a year that will see many millions of people in Asia -- and the United States and elsewhere -- pass judgment on their leaders.

There already has been enough drama for a movie.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian was campaigning in his hometown of Tainan on election eve Friday when he and Vice President Annette Lu were wounded by gunfire under circumstances that remain unclear.

Police have not said who might have fired the shots or why, but the incident may have attracted sympathy votes for the president. Chen claimed a narrow victory Saturday, but opposition candidate Lien Chan refused to concede and is trying to nullify the election.

Lien called the shooting suspicious and demanded a probe into its influence on the vote. His allies also charge that 330,000 ballots were spoiled -- more than 10 times Chen's margin of victory.

Taiwanese likened the dispute to the Bush-Gore presidential contest in 2000, which came down to a drawn-out recount of ballots in Florida. Taiwanese television trotted out footage Sunday of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Chen's office, meanwhile, produced more pictures to back up the apparent assassination attempt, including one showing the president talking into a cell phone while doctors attended to his wound.

While Taiwanese cast ballots Saturday, newspapers and broadcasts ran photos of a long red gash on Chen's belly, purportedly evidence of a superficial gunshot wound. The losing camp called the situation "fishy."

Violent impeachment

A week earlier, South Korea's parliament took on the ambiance of a barroom fight. Emotional lawmakers screamed, threw punches and smashed furniture as the opposition pressed the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun for alleged election law violations and incompetence.

Roh is now in an unusual form of presidential limbo. He holds his title and gets to live in the official residence but has been stripped of all power until the nation's Constitutional Court decides whether to remove or restore him.

Politicians allied to Roh are expected to do well in April 15 parliamentary elections, a blow to lawmakers who engineered the impeachment.

An estimated 130,000 people turned out in Seoul on Saturday for the latest in a string of anti-impeachment protests, while smaller crowds gathered in 80 provincial cities.

In Malaysia, voters resoundingly rejected the fundamentalist Islamic opposition in key states, handing the secular leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, a mandate after two decades of confrontational rule.

Both sides had invoked a higher calling.

"This position has been fated by Allah for me, and I must fulfill it with responsibility," Abdullah said.

The Islamic opposition's spiritual leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, said earlier that true believers "will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support un-Islamic parties will logically go to hell."

Political scientist Michael DeGolyer called 2004 a watershed year for elections.

"It's also a year of really testing the nerves of countries that don't use elections as a means of giving accountability of government to the people," said DeGolyer, who teaches at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Along those lines, Chinese leaders who viewed Taiwan's election with suspicion are also worried about Hong Kong residents clamoring for more democracy.

Ordinary Hong Kong voters will be allowed to choose 30 of 60 lawmakers in September, compared with 24 last time. The rest are picked by special interest groups under an unusual system put in place when Hong Kong was returned from Britain to China in 1997.

The push for Hong Kong democracy prompted Beijing to lash back with a propaganda campaign attacking pro-democracy figures as traitors unfit to govern -- a tactic that might backfire at the polls.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faces a re-election battle in May packed with overtones of an old rivalry that saw her take over in January 2001 when a massive "people power" movement forced President Joseph Estrada out of office.

One contender, Fernando Poe Jr., is a friend of Estrada. Both are well-known movie stars and popular among poor Filipino voters, though others doubt Poe's fame and appeal can translate into leadership.

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