Nearly 500,000 people, many clad in throwaway yellow ponchos against a cold drizzle, surrounded Taiwan’s presidential office and blocked major streets Saturday to protest last weekend’s disputed presidential election.
President Chen Shui-bian promised again Saturday night to back a recount of the election that he narrowly won, and endorsed an investigation into the bizarre shooting that lightly wounded him shortly before the vote.
Many protesters said the shooting gave Chen an unfair, last-minute boost at the polls. Others believe conspiracy theories that the president staged the shooting.
“This was a very dirty election. We want the truth,” said protester Carla Wang, a 56-year-old employee at a trading company.
Waving red Taiwanese flags, the protesters filled up the wide boulevards in front of the presidential office and spilled over into the side streets. Most were wearing disposable plastic rain ponchos to keep dry in a steady rain.
Some protesters brought a 15-foot-tall Statue of Liberty that had a tear in her eye and the slogan “Strive for Justice” written on her body in Chinese characters. The crowd totaled 470,000, according to the Taipei city government.
The massive rally went on despite a vague warning from rival China’s saying that ongoing turmoil might become an excuse to take over the tiny island. Beijing has long insisted that Taiwan belongs to Chinese territory.
At the end of the four-hour rally, losing candidate Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party addressed the crowd and repeated his demands for a recount of the vote.
“If someone uses nasty means to gain power, such power won’t be effective and won’t be respected,” said Lien, a 67-year-old former political science professor and ex-vice president.
Lien also demanded an independent investigation into the bizarre election-eve shooting.
Lien never said whether he would accept the results of a recount, and he didn’t mention the president’s pledge to hold a recount.
During a late-night news conference, Chen repeated his willingness to hold a recount, and he promised that he would accept the results. He challenged Lien to do the same.
“We haven’t rigged the election, so why should we fear a recount?” Chen said.
The prosecutor investigating the shooting has said he will invite famed forensic scientist Henry Lee, who worked on the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases, to lead the investigation.
The president said that if Lien formally petitioned the courts to nullify the results, he would endorse the move and urge judges not to bother holding hearings on the evidence so that the recount could be done immediately.
Lien’s handling of the controversy has been confusing. Sometimes he demands a recount, and other times he talks about holding the vote again. Sometimes he treats the unexplained shooting as the most important issue.
Many believe an internal power struggle is going on between moderates who just favor a recount, and hard-liners who want a new election. Lien is presiding over a coalition of his Nationalist Party and the smaller People First Party.
On Saturday, one of the most popular moderates in the Nationalist Party, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, said that Lien should just accept the results of a recount.
But the hard-liners have been more visible, and at times they have used violence to push their points. On Friday, members of the People First Party helped incite a crowd of about 2,000 to storm the Central Election Commission as it prepared to certify Chen’s victory. The angry mob broke windows, tossed eggs and scuffled with riot police.
Saturday’s rally was relatively peaceful, but a few thousand people refused to leave an area in front of the Presidential Office. They have occupied the space since the election