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Taiwan's Democratic Labor Pains

Young democracies can be cruel: their voters are often as unforgiving as political opponents. The two weeks since Taiwan's disputed presidential election of March 20 - only the third such democratic vote in the country's history - has tested this truism almost to the breaking point. Taiwan's young democracy must now cope with the balancing act that President Chen Shui-bian's re-election has thrust upon it.

While canvassing for votes in his hometown in southern Taiwan on the eve of the election, President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were both wounded by an assassin's bullet. The sympathy this secured gave the President his razor-thin margin of victory - with just 50.1% of the votes - over Lien Chan, the candidate of the Kuomintang Party and People's First Party (KMT-PFP) coalition. Opposition street protests and shouts that the assassination was stage followed. A recount was demanded.

None of this is surprising, because Taiwan's society is evenly and deeply polarized. President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) called for "one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait" and for "preventing the return of an alien regime" (meaning the KMT, which came to Taiwan in 1949). But while Chen's campaign to safeguard Taiwan against threats from mainland China clearly galvanized the party's supporters, it made the uncommitted nervous and the rival KMT angry.

For the KMT-PFP coalition, the campaign was a virtual holy war, conducted not only to revive an ailing economy, but also to keep the country's official name: the "Republic of China." With so much at stake, both camps mobilized millions of people.