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Profile: Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian


Both of Taiwan's main political parties have suspended campaign activity, following a failed assassination attempt against President Chen Shui-bian. His office says Saturday's election will go forward as scheduled. Voters are to choose between giving Mr. Chen another term or electing his Nationalist rival, Lien Chan.

A spokesman for President Chen Shui-bian says he is urging Taiwan residents to remain calm, as he and Vice President Annette Lu recover. Doctors say their wounds are not life threatening.

While it is unclear who attempted to kill the president, it is clear that he has long been the focus of heated debate.

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

The narrow victory suggested voters were gradually 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 election.

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 has been fighting for a non-traditional way of thinking," she said. "And without that fighting spirit, I do not think the opposition party, then, would not be able to make it in power."

Mr. Chen is running for another four-year term. His rival is Lien Chan, the head of the KMT. Polls indicate the race is too close to predict who would win.

Late Friday, there were no clear signs of how the shooting will affect the vote.

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.

Friday's shooting may not be the first time the Chen family was attacked over politics. In 1984, a truck hit Mr. Chen's wife during a campaign event, shattering her spine and leaving her paralyzed. Police ruled the incident an accident and no one was ever charged for it. But Professor Emile Sheng of Soochow University says many people, including Mr. Chen, doubt that conclusion.

"People who support DPP believe that Kuomintang sent people to create this accident, to hurt his wife," she said. "But, on the other hand people will cite evidence that this is truly an accident."

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," said Professor Sheng. "Lot of times he kind of crossed the line without noticing. He sometimes violates the ethical codes, and tries to justify means with the ends."

At 48, Mr. Chen became the youngest person to win Taiwan's presidency. Beijing viewed the election with alarm - despite the fact 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 step toward an eventual vote on Taiwanese independence.

In December, President Bush publicly warned President Chen for 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 sits side by side with the defense referendum on this Saturday's ballot. Political researchers say most voters will either support both, or neither.

And now that Mr. Chen has survived a shooting on the eve of voting, an entirely new factor has been added to the electoral equation, one that will not be fully understood until the votes are counted.