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Profile: Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian - 2004-03-16

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is in the final week of a pitched battle to retain his job. Taiwan voters choose Saturday between Mr. Chen and Nationalist rival Lien Chan.

When Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian led the Democratic Opposition Party, or DPP, to power four years ago, he shattered a 51-year monopoly of power held by the Nationalist Kuomintang party, or KMT.

His narrow victory suggested many voters were warming to Mr. Chen's vision of a Taiwan with its own national identity, a rebuke to the Beijing government's threats of war, if the island attempts to declare independence from mainland China. The DPP has long advocated declaring independence, although Mr. Chen distanced himself from that position before the 2000 elections.

Mr. Chen, commonly called Ah-Bian, campaigned as a "Son of Taiwan," a slogan that emphasized both his youth and his origins as a native-born Taiwanese. He presented himself as a fresh start, after decades of KMT rule, which the DPP said was corrupt and too conciliatory to Beijing.

Professor Joanne Chang of Taiwan's Academia Sinica says Mr. Chen's display of a fighting spirit captured many voters' imagination. "Throughout his career, you can see he's been fighting for a non-traditional way of thinking. And without that fighting spirit, I don't think the opposition party, then, would be able to make it in power," she said.

Mr. Chen is now running for another four-year term. His rival is Lien Chan, the head of the KMT. Just days before the election, polls indicated it was too close to predict who would win.

Mr. Chen rose from a childhood of poverty in a southern farming family to become Taiwan's youngest lawyer. A formative experience of his early legal career was defending pro-independence dissidents in 1979.

His future vice president, Annette Lu, was among protesters arrested in anti-KMT riots in Kaohsiung, which took place as the dissidents went to trial.

Personal hardship struck early in Mr. Chen's political career. In 1984, a truck hit his wife, shattering her spine and leaving her paralyzed. Professor Emile Sheng of Soochow University says popular sentiment over that accident remains divided. "People who support DPP believe that [the] Kuomintang sent people to create this accident, to hurt his wife. But on the other hand, people will cite evidence that this is truly an accident," she says.

A year later, Mr. Chen was convicted of libel in a case involving a politician who favored unification with China. He spent eight months in jail.

Mr. Chen got his big break in politics in 1994, when he was elected mayor of Taipei. He built a reputation as a corruption fighter, targeting the city's slums and red light districts for redevelopment.

But Professor Sheng says he also came under criticism for having an autocratic style. "He always wants to be Number One. Lots of times, he kind of crossed the line without noticing. He sometimes violates the ethical codes, and tries to justify means with the ends," she says.

At 48, Mr. Chen became the youngest person ever to win Taiwan's presidency. Beijing viewed the election with alarm, even though Mr. Chen had softened some of his positions on relations across the Taiwan Strait, including his promise to hold a referendum on Taiwan's status.

But Mr. Chen did not abandon the idea of holding Taiwan's first referendum. Early this year, he announced he would push forward with a referendum on whether mainland China should stop aiming missiles at Taiwan and, if it does not, whether Taiwan should seek increased defenses.

Beijing views the referendum as the first step to an eventual vote on Taiwanese independence. In December, President Bush publicly cautioned President Chen about threatening to disturb the status quo that keeps peace across the Taiwan Strait.

But Mr. Chen says public referendums are a natural step in Taiwan's democratic evolution. He says they will eventually be crucial in modernizing Taiwan's outdated 1947 constitution.

Mr. Chen's political future now rests side-by-side with the defense referendum on this Saturday's ballot. Political researchers say most voters will either support both, or neither.