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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:18 GMT
Taiwan rivals in historic debate

By Chris Hogg
BBC News

Lien Chen (Left) shakes hands with Chen Shui-bian
Lien Chen (left) and Chen Shui-bian criticised each other's decisions
Taiwan's opposition leader has used the nation's first TV election debate to attack his opponent's referendum plans.

Lien Chan from the Nationalist Party said President Chen Shui-bian's decision threatened national security.

Taiwan's voters are to elect a president on 20 March and will also be asked about peace talks with China and buying more defensive weapons systems.

Holding both polls on the same day has angered China and attracted criticism from the US, France and Germany.

This was the first time two presidential candidates had ever gone head to head in a formal debate on Taiwanese television.

The polls suggest that Mr Lien, chairman of the opposition Nationalist Party, is slightly ahead of his rival, President Chen - but around a quarter of the electorate remain undecided.

With just over a month to go until polling day, the candidates know they are in effect running neck and neck.

Referendum tension

Mr Lien used the debate to criticise the president's decision to hold a referendum on polling day. He said it threatened national security.

China is angry about the vote, which it sees as a step towards independence.

The leadership in Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province which should be reunited with the mainland.

Voters will be asked whether Taiwan should buy more military equipment to protect the island from the missiles China has aimed at it, and whether the government should attempt to reopen talks with Beijing.

Mr Lien questioned the legitimacy of the exercise and accused the president of being self-serving in the way he governed Taiwan at the expense of the national interest.

Mr Chen defended his decision to call the referendum, saying it was the right choice to safeguard peace and democracy.

He said it was necessary to protect the sovereignty of Taiwan and to maintain peace across the Taiwan Strait.

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