TAIPEI, Taiwan – A failed attempt to assassinate Taiwan's (search) leader shook up Saturday's election pitting the incumbent, who campaigned on a China-bashing platform, against a challenger pushing a more conciliatory approach toward the mainland.
With about half of the total 14 million votes counted, the race was too close to call, according to unofficial counts done by ETTV and TVBS cable news stations. Official results were expected later Saturday.
Taiwanese also voted separately on a referendum asking if Taiwan should beef up defenses if China refuses to withdraw missiles targeting the territory and whether to seek peace talks with Beijing.
The election has been an emotional race dominated by negative campaigning — even though President Chen Shui-bian (search) and his challenger, ex-Vice President Lien Chan (search), agree on China policy.
Gunfire hit the 53-year-old leader in the abdomen and Vice President Annette Lu (search) in the knee as they rode through the southern town of Tainan on Friday, waving to supporters from an open-top Jeep. Neither politician was seriously wounded and some analysts speculated the bizarre shooting could win Chen sympathy votes in the tight race.
Surrounded by bodyguards armed with submachine guns Saturday, Chen slowly strolled into a voting station in the capital, Taipei. He walked stiffly, looking wan and serious. He smiled slightly as he dropped his ballot in the box and told reporters that gunshots would never derail Taiwan's democracy.
"It doesn't matter where the bullet came from, A-bian won't be struck down," Chen said, referring to himself by his nickname. "And even if I were struck down, this could not strike down the aspirations of Taiwan's 23 million people for democracy and liberty."
Earlier, his challenger urged Taiwan's 16.5 million eligible voters not to be swayed by their emotions. "We must be brave and calm," Lien, 67, said as he cast his ballot.
The shooting was being treated as a criminal case — not a conspiracy or an attack that involved rival China, prosecutor Wang Sen-jung said Saturday.
Chinese leaders have denounced the referendum, which they fear is a rehearsal for a vote on Taiwanese independence. The two sides split when the communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949. Beijing wants Taiwan to rejoin the mainland and has threatened to attack if Taiwan seeks a permanent split.
China broke its official silence on the shootings early Saturday but said only that the government was following developments. It failed to join other Asian governments in wishing Chen a quick recovery.
The noncommittal, two-sentence statement by Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office reflected a dilemma over how to respond without boosting the popularity of a Taiwanese leader that the communist mainland government reviles as a liar and traitor.
"We've taken note of the shooting at Chen Shui-bian and Annette Lu," said its statement, carried by the official Xinhua News Agency. "We'll continue to follow the developments."
At a junior high school in the capital, Taipei, Veronica Wu, a 35-year-old cook, said she was voting for Chen and that the shootings didn't influence her vote. "This is my occasion to participate in history," she said, referring to the referendum.
Karen Wang, 25, a student, said the economy was much more important. "I want to work when I finish my studies, so I voted for the candidate who cares about the economy, Lien Chan."
Neither candidate favors immediate unification with China, and both highly distrust the communist leadership. Chen, of the Democratic Progressive Party, has been more aggressive in pushing for a Taiwanese identity separate from China, though, raising tensions with Beijing.
Since Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, their leaders have not met, and the Taiwan Strait remains one of Asia's most volatile potential flash points. China has threatened to attack if Taiwan refuses to unify.
Before the shootings, Soochow University political scientist Emile Sheng saw certain victory for Lien, of the opposition Nationalist Party. Now, he's not so sure. "This will give supporters a sense of urgency and tragedy, and cause a higher turnout," Sheng said.
In Washington, the White House condemned the shooting but said the response in Taiwan was a testament to the country's democracy.
"The calm that has prevailed on Taiwan since the shooting underscores the civil responsibility of the Taiwan people and the strength of their democratic system," said Scott McClellan, press secretary to U.S. President George W. Bush.
Earlier, however, the United States expressed its displeasure at the referendum on China — as did France, Germany, Japan and South Korea.
Taiwanese officials refused to speculate about who staged the assassination attempt. Police said two assailants might have been firing from different directions. One bullet ended up in Chen's jacket pocket, another under the seat of the vehicle. Police haven't announced the arrest of any suspects.