Taiwan elects opposition president despite Beijing's threats

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The Independent Online

Defying China's threats of war, Taiwanese ended more than a half century of Nationalist Party rule Saturday and elected opposition leader Chen Shui-bian to the presidency.

Chen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party defeated Nationalist Vice President Lien Chan and populist independent James Soong as Taiwanese overcame any fears of an attack by Beijing.

Chen had 39 percent of the votes, with Soong trailing at 37 percent and Lien getting just 23 percent.

Thousands of Chen's followers celebrated with blaring air horns, fireworks and deafening cheers as the results flashed on a huge TV screen set up on a blocked-off street in front of his Taipei campaign office.

Nationalists who had supported Lien or Soong were somber, many of them weeping as they wondered what had gone wrong.

Lien, surrounded by glum party leaders, conceded defeat on live television but offered his congratulations to Chen.

The race was an electoral cliffhanger before voting began, with most polls saying the three candidates were in a statistical tie.

But in the last week of the campaign, Chen seemed to have the most momentum, winning key endorsements and attracting large, spirited crowds at his rallies.

At the DPP celebration party, campaign strategist You Ying-lung heralded "a great, unprecedented victory."

"We have realized our forefathers' dreams for democracy. Taiwan shall have its first peaceful transfer of power," he said.

Chen is a former Taipei mayor who lost that office to a Nationalist challenger in late 1998, but he is untested in the international arena where he will face growing pressure to negotiate with China.

A bloody civil war split the two sides in 1949, and Beijing has repeatedly threatened to resort to force to bring reunification.

Beijing leaders distrust Chen because they believe he will declare Taiwanese independence - a move China says will bring war. Last week, an angry Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji tried to warn voters away from Chen in a Beijing news conference televised in Taipei.

"We were not intimidated by Zhu Rongji," said the DPP strategist, You. "Taiwanese do not bend under threats."

On Saturday, Chen reaffirmed his desire to lead a delegation to China before taking office - and not to stir up any conflict.

"I want to reduce the tensions and conflict that are the result of misunderstandings between the two sides," Chen said after voting at a Taipei elementary school.

Chen said better relations with China would be a priority and if Beijing refused to meet him in China, he would be willing to meet in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Washington or any other location.

Although the DPP supports independence, the idea scares many Taiwanese and Chen backed away from that stance during the campaign, saying an independence declaration would be possible only if Beijing were to attack.

Lien, President Lee Teng-hui's chosen successor, had promised voters he would continue Taiwan's political reforms, fight corruption and maintain security. But Lien was an awkward campaigner who had trouble convincing ordinary voters he understood their concerns.

The populist Soong, a former Taiwan provincial governor, had argued Taiwan's large political parties no longer serve the people. He promised to fight corruption and improve relations with China by signing a 30-year nonaggression pact with Beijing.

Huang Tsin-lin got up early to vote for Chen before opening his family laundry business in Taipei. He said it was "time for change" and he believes Chen could clean up Taiwan's corruption without provoking China.

"It's time for the KMT (Nationalists) to go," Huang said. "They know nothing except making money. Everything is about making money."

In the Taipei suburb of Yungho, Liao Shu-chih, an electronic spare parts dealer, said the vote was a difficult choice and he pondered until Friday night to decide whom to vote for. He wouldn't tell a reporter who he decided on.

"I don't believe any of the candidates would provoke China," Liao said, "but the decision to use force is China's, not ours."

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