Taiwan's pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian narrowly won re-election yesterday when he clinched the country's closest-fought poll by a mere 30,000 votes just a day after surviving an assassination attempt.
However, hours later, Taiwan's High Court ordered all ballot boxes across the island be sealed after demands for a recount from President Shui-bian's opponent, Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT).
"It was not a fair election," declared Mr Lien at a rally of cheering supporters.
The President meanwhile declared the elections "a victory of democracy".
It is unclear if the KMT can successfully challenge the results. It does, however, have the potential to damage the still untested workings of Taiwan's young democracy. The national election commission confirmed the results and said the opposition must file a complaint and the matter would be handled according to the regulations. Its initial protests are bearing fruit.
Taiwanese political commentators compared the situation to the last US presidential election. In 2000 the result was similarly close and was marred by a dispute over spoiled ballots that had to be referred to the Supreme Court. In Taiwan voters go into a booth and put a cross against one of two candidates. A recount, if it takes place, would therefore not be complicated by such issues as hanging chads.
The narrowness of the result, however, offers plenty of scope for dispute. President Chen won 50.12 per cent of the vote or 6,470,839 votes, Mr Lien won 49.88 per cent with 6,443,022 votes but there were 337,297 invalid ballots, more than 10 times the difference between the candidates, so a recount could easily change the result.
With victory delivered by such a tiny margin, the opposition has also been busy stirring up doubts about the mysterious shooting on Friday afternoon which may have spurred some to vote against the KMT or to favour President Chen out of sympathy.
His wife, Wu Shu-chen, has been in a wheelchair since 1985 when she was hit by a truck and run over three times, an incident blamed by many on the KMT. All the leading members of President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spent years in jail when it was a crime to organise opposition to the KMT during its 40-year dictatorship.
The police have opened an investigation into the shootings but have offered no hints about the identity of the assailants or their motives. The public is pondering allegations that President Chen and his running mate may have deliberately engineered the shooting to help their campaign.
Those responsible appear to have used homemade guns and bullets similar to those used by Taiwanese gangsters, or Triads, who are heavily involved in domestic politics. Observers are ruling out the Communists on the mainland, but the KMT is angry that President Chen used the incident to put the armed forces on alert, a way of stoking fears of mainland China.
The President's DPP was not, however, celebrating too triumphantly. The electorate failed to pass two referendum questions because less than 50 per cent of the electorate voted. KMT supporters boycotted the referendums.
Beijing, which has refused to deal with President Chen for four years, will be infuriated that he won again but will be pleased that the referendums failed.
Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement the referendum failed because it went "against the will of the people". It added: "Any attempt to separate Taiwan from China is doomed to failure."
Under a new and highly contested law, the Taiwanese were asked if they should beef up their military defences if China refused to remove the 496 missiles pointed at the island, and whether the government should engage in talks with the mainland. More than six million people said yes, but the results show that President Chen could not be confident of getting through a referendum on independence, an act which Beijing has threatened to use as an excuse to launch an invasion on the island.
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