TAIPEI, Taiwan – President Chen Shui-bian and his vice president were shot and wounded Friday in an apparent assassination attempt as they rode in an open vehicle while campaigning for this weekend’s elections.
The shooting occurred during a campaign parade in the southern city of Tainan ahead of Saturday’s landmark election and referendum, which could be a turning point in the island’s tense relationship with China.
The 53-year-old leader — the first Taiwanese president to be shot — was grazed in the stomach and Vice President Annette Lu, 59, was hit in the right knee. Their injuries were not life threatening, said Chiou I-jen, secretary-general in the Presidential Office.
No arrests were reported and it was not clear what the motivation was for the apparent assassination attempt in a street choked with Chen’s supporters in Tainan, the president’s hometown.
About five hours after the shooting, the president left the hospital to return to the capital, Taipei. He did not comment to reporters as he got into a sport utility vehicle and drove the airport to board the presidential plane.
After the shooting, the president “was very conscious and he walked into our emergency room,” Chan Chi-hsien, head of Chi Mei Hospital, said.
The president and Lu were not wearing bulletproof vests as they stood in a red convertible four-wheel-drive vehicle and waved to crowds lining the streets in Tainan on the last day of campaigning for Saturday’s election.
As a grassroots politician, Chen enjoys street campaigning and frequently wades into big crowds. Security is relatively relaxed because there’s not a tradition of violence against leaders on the island.
People were setting off celebratory fireworks as he drove by and early media reports said he was injured by firecrackers.
“The vice president first felt pain in her knee and she thought it was caused by firecrackers,” Chiou said. “Then the president felt some wetness on his stomach area, and then they realized something was wrong.”
Chen supporters gathered outside the hospital in Tainan. Using Chen’s nickname, the crowd chanted, “A-bian, get elected,” as they pumped their arms in the air. Some waved green flags, the color of Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party.
The presidential vote will go ahead as planned on Saturday, an election official said, although the candidates’ parties decided to suspend campaign activities before the vote.
The Chinese government had no official reaction and didn’t tell its own public Friday after Taiwan’s president was shot a day before elections that Beijing hoped he would lose. One mainland Web site apparently blocked commentary and a CNN broadcast on the assault was blacked out.
In the months leading up to the election, China had harshly criticized Chen. It also bitterly denounced the referendum backed by Chen asking Taiwanese voters whether the island should beef up its defenses to protect against hundreds of Chinese missiles pointed at it.
Officials declined to speculate about who fired the shots.
Opposition candidate Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party told a news conference, “We were very, very shocked. We wish President Chen and Vice President Lu will recover soon. We strongly condemn any form of violence.”
However, Chen insists that his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was the target of an assassination attempt in 1985 when a truck ran over her three times, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Chen has accused the Nationalist Party of being involved, but the truck driver and party insisted it was an accident and the driver wasn’t charged.
After visiting the United States, the first lady once commented about how impressed she was by the alertness of U.S. Secret Service bodyguards who accompanied her.
The election has been an emotional, hotly contested race dominated by negative campaigning.
Lien is promising to take a softer approach with the island’s biggest rival, China.
China is traditionally a hot topic in major Taiwanese elections. The two sides split when the Communists took over the mainland in 1949, and Beijing is pressuring Taiwan to unify.
Lien and Chen agree on most of the basic issues involving China policy. Neither candidate favors immediate unification, and both are highly distrustful of the Communist leadership.
However, Chen has been more aggressive in pushing for a Taiwanese identity separate from China’s and this has raised tensions with Beijing. China has threatened to attack if Taiwan seeks a permanent split.
The United States also has expressed its displeasure at the referendum, along with France, Germany, Japan and South Korea.
Both the mainland’s government officials and its state-controlled media have used inflammatory language for years against Chen, calling him everything from a joke to a traitor to his own people.
In 2002, an editorial in People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s newspaper, said of Chen: “In desperation, he takes a risk on the happiness of 23 million Taiwanese just for political self-interest. He will pay a terrible price for this gambler’s act.”
In recent days, however, China has lowered the linguistic flame. Premier Wen Jiabao, in a yearly news conference Sunday, didn’t mention Chen by name.
“Some people in the Taiwan authorities have been trying to push for a referendum on Taiwan independence based on the pretense of democracy,” Wen said. “They have undermined this universally recognized principle of one China and threatened stability in the Taiwan Strait.”