HONG KONG, March 21 (UPI) -- Taiwan was thrown into political chaos following the presidential election Saturday, after President Chen Shui-bian won re-election by a narrow margin and opposition candidate Lien Chan declared the poll invalid and called for a recount.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, crowds still milled in the streets of Taipei and riot police remained on alert should violence erupt among rival political camps.
Kuomintang leader Lien Chan refused to concede defeat after the final results showed Chen the winner by a margin of less than 30,000 votes. Lien said there had been too many irregularities surrounding the election, in which more than 80 percent of the island's 16 million eligible voters participated. He asked the Election Commission to seal the ballot boxes and re-examine the votes.
The final count was 6,471,970 votes for Chen, with 6,442,452 for Lien. In addition, more than 300,000 votes were declared invalid, a number more than ten times larger than the margin of difference between the two candidates. Within hours after the vote, the Kuomintang filed a complaint with the Supreme Court contesting the validity of the election.
The voting took place one day after an assassination attempt in which Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were slightly injured. The shooting apparently tipped the vote in favor of the Democratic People's Party and the incumbent president, who had been trailing the opposition in recent polls.
A referendum that was conducted alongside the election -- asking if Taiwan should boost defenses against China, and if it should set up a framework for peace talks with China on an equal footing -- was declared invalid when less than 50 percent of the voters participated. The Kuomintang had called for a boycott of the referendum.
"This is a victory of Taiwan's democracy," Chen said at a rally after the results were announced. He called on his supporters not to be proud of their win, not to harbor hatred toward their opponents, to tolerate everyone's views and to create a harmonious and united Taiwan. He also said the election marked the beginning of "an era of peace with the other side of the Taiwan Strait."
Chen ran on a platform of independence from China for Taiwan. The position is unacceptable to China, which has threatened to attack Taiwan if the island declares itself a separate nation from China.
Chen is strongly disliked by leaders in Beijing. Speaking a few days before the election, a mainland scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity, called a Chen win the "worst case scenario." But he added, "we've already had to deal with the worst case scenario for four years. Beijing is confident it can deal with the worst case scenario if it happens again."
The challenge to the election result and the failure of the referendum will be welcome news to China's leaders.
This is the second failed presidential attempt for Kuomintang leader Lien Chan and his running mate, James Soong, who ran on separate tickets in the last election in 2000. They expected an easy win after pooling their parties to run against Chen.
Speaking to his supporters after the election, a clearly agitated Lien said that events surrounding the election were highly questionable. He pointed out that no details on the shooting had emerged, and that the number of votes declared invalid should be investigated. He said his party would pursue legal means to have the vote declared null and void.
Suspicions abound that the attempted assassination of Chen on Friday was staged, with members of different camps accusing each other. Kuomintang supporters dredged up reports that the hospital where Chen was taken had been preparing Friday morning for a VIP visitor, and asked why pictures said to be of Chen's wounded stomach did not show his face.
At a late-night press conference on Friday, police said they had found two bullets, which they believed to have been fired by a trained marksman using what appeared to be a homemade weapon. By late Saturday they still had no suspect in the case.
In Chinese-language chat rooms, conspiracy theories were relayed and embellished from Taiwan to mainland China and Hong Kong. "The whole thing is just too bizarre to be real," said a Hong Kong resident surnamed Yu.
Emotions have run high in recent weeks as millions of people rallied to support their candidates. Many Taiwanese were angered by the divisiveness of the campaign, which pitted native Taiwanese against Chinese whose ancestors came from the mainland. Some had pledged to boycott the vote, or to deliberately cast invalid ballots.
Luo Jingzhi, a graphic artist who supported Chen Shui-bian but was disappointed by his camp's tactics, said he deliberately voided his ballot by circling both candidates. "I made a statement by participating in the election, but neither side won my confidence," he said. He did not vote in the referendum either.
Hours after the vote, Lien and Soong supporters staged a sit-in in Taipei while their representatives prepared legal documents to file with district courts in Taiwan's major cities. Chen supporters, meanwhile, were still celebrating their victory.
There were no reports of violence, despite the strong police presence. An outbreak of violence would be particularly worrying in Taiwan, as it could invite intervention from Chinese forces. China has said it would send troops to Taiwan under any of three conditions: should the island declare independence from China, should foreign forces interfere in its affairs, or should riots occur in the territory.