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.