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Taiwan Voters Head to the Polls - 2004-03-20

Voters In Taiwan are electing a president, despite an apparent assassination attempt against the island's leader.

Taiwan's government is proceeding with the country's third presidential election, regardless of the shooting of President Chen Shui-bian the day before the vote.

President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were wounded in an attack while campaigning Friday in the south of the island. But just hours after being rushed to a nearby hospital, both appeared in a videotaped message, urging the election continue as planned.

Mr. Chen is running against Lien Chan of the opposition Kuomintang, and observers say the race is extremely close.

As a result of the attack, National Taiwan University political science professor Philip Yang said, some voters' sympathy for the president could tilt the race in his favor. "They probably think they owe him one vote because of this incident," he said. "Probably they think that this President Chen Shui-bian taking a gunshot for Taiwanese people."

Mr. Yang said the incident will bring out the vote of borderline Chen supporters who might otherwise have stayed home on election day.

Voters also face a referendum to decide how to conduct relations with China.

The two governments have had a contentious relationship after they split following the Communist revolution in 1949, but Beijing sees the island as part of its territory and says the two must eventually reunify.

President Chen has repeatedly emphasized Taiwan's sovereignty apart from China, and has drawn criticism from Chinese officials.

Mr. Lien, meanwhile, is seen as more conciliatory toward Beijing.

Saturday's referendum is supported by the Chen government and asks voters whether the island should heighten its defense against the Chinese military.

Mr. Lien's party sees the referendum as unnecessary and provocative and is urging voters to boycott it.

But political scientist and commentator Emile Sheng noted that China has refrained from trying to influence this election, as it has in the past. As a result, he said, the China issue may not dominate voter sentiment this time. "That is the main deciding issue in Taiwanese politics," he said, "but in this particular election, the importance and salience of this issue wasn't that dominant, because nothing happened across the Taiwan Strait."

Instead, Mr. Sheng believes more voters are concerned about domestic problems, such as the economy and education.