I don't speak Taiwanese, which is distinct from Mandarin Chinese, the common language here in Taiwan. But my taxi driver in Taipei seemed annoyed when I asked him to switch the radio to a station that broadcast the news in Mandarin. He thought I was slighting Taiwan. His reaction is a tiny picture of the anger, confusion and instability developing here.
Incumbent President Chen Shui-bian narrowly won a second term on March 20, one day after an apparent attempt on his life. Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were shot and wounded, although not seriously, as they traveled in a motorcade last Friday, only hours before voters on this island of 23 million people were to go to the polls to decide whether Taiwan should follow Chen's leadership, which favors eventual, full independence from mainland China.
The losing side, the Nationalists who favor a closer relationship with mainland China, are challenging the results of the election and have suggested that the attack on Chen and his running mate may have been staged to garner a sympathy vote. Chen won by 0.2 percent, the smallest margin of victory in Taiwan's eight years of direct elections.
Taiwan has struggled for almost two decades to make good the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The election controversy is a growing cause for concern in mainland China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province. In Taiwan, it is painful to Taiwanese on both sides of the independence issue.
Thousands of protesters, sometimes exceeding 10,000, have blocked the street outside the presidential palace around the clock since last weekend, calling for an independent investigation of the apparent assassination attempt, a recount and a new election. Despite some isolated incidents of property damage and violence on the island, this street protest has sometimes had a circus-like air. Protesters chant, blare air horns, sing songs, wave flags, and buy sausages and campaign pins from vendors.
Questions Surround Attack
Conspiracy theories abound. Chen's wounds may have been superficial, but the controversy is rapidly becoming Taiwan's equivalent of the intrigue that surrounded the Kennedy assassination. Some suggest that Chen used fake blood or cut himself to create the appearance of a gunshot wound. Rumors fly by e-mail and mobile phone text messages questioning details surrounding the attack, including the trajectory of the bullet and the choice of hospital where Chen was treated.
Meanwhile, Taiwan's stock market has dropped almost 10 percent in the last three days amid fears that the nation could be plagued by more instability for as long as six months, the deadline for the electoral suits to be ruled upon in the High Court.
Chen has claimed that he's not "a vote-rigging president" and called the charge "the biggest insult to my integrity."
Opponent Lien Chan suggested that the assassination attempt was fabricated to gain votes. "It is not purely a gunshot, per se," Lien said, "if it is a gunshot." But Lien has offered little evidence of skullduggery or voting irregularities.
Election Results Await Challenges
The Nationalist challenge appears to be taking two tracks. Immediately following the election, Lien demanded an official recount and a nullification of the election. The nullification suit was rejected by the High Court on Wednesday because it was filed before the formal declaration of a winner.
Lien denies he is manipulating the protesters, who refuse to disperse despite the expiration of their permit. Chen's party, the Democratic Progressive Party, is calling for the protesters to disperse. "This is a country ruled by law," said DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim. "Let's return to the legal basis."
Lien and his running mate are demanding a face-to-face meeting with Chen. Chen has agreed, but wants the protesters to disperse first. James Soong, the opposition party vice presidential candidate, told Reuters that Chen's "preconditions are unreasonable." Meanwhile, a fistfight in Parliament between opposing lawmakers greeted a motion Tuesday by the DPP to pass a retroactive law allowing for an automatic recount.
Six days have passed since the apparent assassination attempt, and the police have made no arrests. The Nationalists are using the lack of progress to bolster their case. But the police have interviewed more than 300 suspects.
"We are the ones who were shot," Chen said. "We are more eager than anyone else to find the truth." In an attempt to bolster his credibility, he released photos and hospital records detailing his treatment.
Election's Focus Has Shifted
In an increasing swirl of allegations, what was once the center of the election might easily be lost. This has really been a fight over which party represents the identity of the people of Taiwan, which is a mixture of those who fled mainland China in 1949 after the defeat by the armies of Mao Zedong and their descendants, the Chinese who came in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the aboriginal people who have lived here for thousands of years. During the campaign, both parties appealed to nationalist sentiments by using Hakka, Hokkien and aboriginal languages.
The majority of people who support Chen consider themselves ethnically Taiwanese, while Lien supporters include those who came over or are descended from those who fled communist China in 1949 and call themselves Chinese.
Despite allegations of fraud, Chen's party claims a marked increase in support. Four years ago, in the three-way 2000 presidential election, Chen won approximately 39 percent of the electorate. This year, although the two losing parties teamed up, Chen's support spiked by more than 10 percent. This appears to reflect the islanders' increasing identification as Taiwanese. Today, some scholars suggest that even within the ranks of the losing party, there are splits between the old and the new guard. Within the election controversy, "there is a split between the Chinese Nationalists and the new generation who call themselves Taiwanese Nationalists," said Wu Chih-Chung, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taipei.
Some islanders describe the dispute about national identity as a painful feeling of inferiority. By the time I left the taxi, the driver was no longer angry and he thanked me profusely for caring enough to visit Taiwan. My Chinese language teacher, although she supports a different party, expressed a similar sentiment. "Taiwan does not receive the requisite respect from the rest of the world," she said.
On Wednesday, despite rumors of a possible agreement, the Nationalists rejected Chen's proposed automatic recount, noting that they wanted judges, not administrative officials, to conduct the recount, and saying it would be too slow. Earlier on Wednesday, the Central Election Commission announced that an automatic recount could be completed by April 3.
Lien called for the president to issue an emergency decree on the recount. Chen rejected this as unconstitutional.
With horns still blaring in the streets, the prospect of more fistfights between lawmakers, and talk of a mass rally this coming weekend, the embattled President Chen has appealed for calm.