The future won over the past, and hope overcame fear in Taiwan Saturday as voters chose opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian as their next President--despite warnings from Beijing that his election could mean war. Chen's win, which ended 55 years of Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) rule on the island, sent tremors around Asia in anticipation of Beijing's reaction, even as the streets of Taipei turned into a party. Only 14 years ago, Chen, a pro-democracy lawyer, had been languishing in jail on charges of libeling a high-ranking KMT member. "This is the greatest victory of Taiwan's democracy movement," Chen told TIME in his office on the day of the victory.
It was always going to be a close race. But because of a Taiwanese rule that prohibits polling a full week before an election, no one could firmly predict how the voting would turn out. When unofficial polls showed Chen nudging ahead, Beijing added to the uncertainty by trying to browbeat the electorate into voting against him. But when all the ballots were counted, Chen had notched just over 39% of the votes. His closest rival, the independent candidate James Soong, had nearly 37%, while the KMT candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, slumped with a 23% showing.
After a week of wild electioneering--and equally wild slips and slides in Taipei's stock market--the final tally provided an emotional release. "I am overwhelmed by the victory," said Hsiao Li-hsin, 30, a legislative assistant who stood among the mob that crowded the streets outside Chen's party headquarters. "I'm going to stay here all night and all tomorrow morning." Police had closed the streets to traffic for blocks around the victory party, which filled the air with confetti, firecrackers and the occasional outburst of song. "I'm going to sleep well for the first time in 50 years," said Shih Shia-shu, 70, a pensioner wearing a Chen hat.
But as Chen's supporters frolicked, others began to worry about the future under the new President, whose Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) has a history of espousing Taiwanese independence. China has long threatened invasion if Taiwan declares independence, and it waged a strong war of words against Chen's candidacy. This culminated last Wednesday in an attack by Zhu Rongji, the reform-minded Premier, normally a moderate regarding Taiwan. Zhu warned voters in Taiwan against "impulse" voting: "Otherwise I'm afraid you won't get another opportunity to regret." He said Chinese were prepared to "shed blood" to protect their territory, and dismissed Western military analysts who say China is still years away from having the ability to invade Taiwan successfully (see box).
Warning lights began flashing across Asia and as far away as Washington. If Zhu the moderate was talking war, what were the hawks in the People's Liberation Army planning? U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, touring Asia, said Beijing's "threat of the use of force is counterproductive." Later, in Washington, the State Department summoned China's ambassador, Li Zhaoxing, to protest China's threats and ask Beijing to tone down its rhetoric.