Recounts and conspiracy theories in Taiwan

Posted: Mar 25, 2004 12:00 AM

TAIPEL, Taiwan -- Imagine -- no, don't -- a U.S. election in which the president and vice president, trailing in the polls, are both slightly wounded in an assassination attempt the day before the election. Imagine a leading legislator charging that the "assassination attempt" was actually a desperate ploy by the incumbents to win the election by gaining a sympathy vote. Imagine also the president winning by one-fourth of one percent of the vote, as election officials declare invalid almost 3 percent of all votes. Imagine a nationwide recount.

That all makes for drama even weirder than the U.S. "hanging chad" election of 2000 -- and that's what this island-nation that the United States is pledged to defend now slouches through. The returns on March 20 showed President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party gaining 29,000 more votes (out of 13 million cast) than Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party -- yet referenda that President Chen favored, which would have pushed Taiwan toward a harder line in relation to Communist China, failed.

The current debate could not be more important: Lien favors a conciliatory approach toward mainland China, with a special emphasis on stronger commercial relations, and some say his approach could lead to Taiwan being absorbed into the People's Republic on terms similar to those given Hong Kong. But behind the political tension lie 55 years of troubled history.

Beaten by communist forces during the years after World War II, nationalists retreated to Taiwan -- and ever since then many native Taiwanese have resented the escapees from the mainland, who brought with them leadership talents but also arrogance. President Chen's core support is Taiwanese, while Lien's core vote is Chinese -- "and don't forget it, buster," his tone communicates.

Memorable campaign moments led up to Election Day. Lien kissed the ground to show his love for Taiwan despite his fondness for closer ties to the mainland. Analysts discussed how the burial of ancestors in a dragon-shaped cemetery could affect presidential candidates. One campaign's rally of 1 million supporters was topped by the other side's gathering of 3 million the following weekend.

Then came the pre-election day assassination attempt. Photographs showed a red streak across President Chen's stomach, apparently from a glancing shot. He required 14 stitches but was soon back campaigning, as was his kneecapped vice presidential running mate. Confusion dominated media accounts: No one gave a definitive answer about the number of shooters and the number of bullets. (At first, only one bullet was found, leading to theories of a "magic bullet" deflecting off the vice president into the president.) No one knew whether the shooter (or shooters) was working for Beijng, or for gangsters who had placed big bets on the election -- or perhaps, the conspiracy theorists said, it was all a set-up to win Chen sympathy.

The tension brought out big election day crowds. The China Post reported that Buddhist monks in their robes, brides and grooms in their wedding gowns and suits, and aborigines dressed in their traditional attire all lined up to vote, with voter turnout exceeding 80 percent. When early returns showed Lien leading, tens of thousands of his supporters wore their campaign colors of blue and orange, and let out rousing cheers. But as President Chen took control, his adherents gathered in front of a backdrop displaying Chinese characters translated as "Heaven Blesses Taiwan." When government vote counters declared Chen the winner shortly after 9 p.m., his supporters let out a huge roar and sent fireworks soaring.

I come away from an Election Day visit to Taipei without any blinding foreign policy insights (yes, we should review all old alliances in the light of new, anti-terrorist realities), but with new curiosity about Taiwanese politics. And here's one small thought: Wow, am I glad that we in the United States have an electoral college, so that recounts don't require counting every vote in every state.