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Taiwan Court Orders Ballots Sealed After Disputed Presidential Election - 2004-03-21

Taiwan's High Court has ordered ballots and other documents from Saturday's presidential election sealed amid a bitter dispute over the result. Protests have broken out around the island questioning the incumbent president's victory.

While opposition candidate Lien Chan went to court to challenge President Chen Shui-bian's very narrow re-election, thousands of Mr. Lien's supporters took to the streets, demanding that the president's victory be declared invalid.

Mr. Lien filed an appeal against the election after Saturday's results were announced, demanding a recount and an investigation into alleged irregularities.

The Lien campaign is also questioning an apparent assassination attempt against President Chen one day before the polls, which observers say created a sympathy vote that turned the election in his favor.

Some Lien supporters accuse the president of playing up the incident or even staging it himself. Mr. Chen was slightly wounded in the stomach by a bullet as he rode through the streets in Southern Taiwan.

They also note that 2.5 percent of the ballots were declared invalid, while the margin of victory was less than one percentage point.

This, combined with some private exit polls showing an opposition victory, points to what the opposition claims was election rigging by the administration.

Bill Sun, a member of parliament from Mr. Lien's Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, says while fresh elections are unlikely, there is still a chance the recount could end up changing the results.

"At least we will have a recounting, a fair and square recounting to show whether the votes are really manipulated," said Mr. Sun.

But Shen Fu-hsiung, a senior parliament member from President Chen's party, says the legal challenge is really just an emotional reaction to Mr. Lien's defeat.

"I think it is a chance for them to vent their anger," said Mr. Shen, "and I think eventually justice will come to the conclusion [that] the election is valid."

The bitter and close presidential contest focused on many key issues for Taiwan, including the recent economic recession and relations with rival neighbor China.

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has long demanded political reunification.

While the candidates' positions on China relations during the campaign were quite similar, President Chen is seen as favoring formal independence from China, while Mr. Lien is seen as more willing to maintain the status quo and find compromise with Beijing.

Saturday's vote also included a referendum on how to conduct relations with China, though the results have been thrown out as a majority of voters did not take part.

Beijing, which strongly opposed the holding of the referendum, had no immediate reaction to the election results, other than to report that Mr. Chen had been re-elected and the referendum had failed.

Formal legal proceedings in Mr. Lien's election challenge are set to begin within a week.