Doctor takes on gun victim he saved in Taiwan vote drama

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (front left) speaks to Sean Lien, the Nationalist Party's (KMT) Taipei mayor candidate.

TAIPEI - It is the most dramatic contest of Taiwan's biggest ever local elections - a high-flying surgeon takes on the man whose life he helped save after he was shot in the head on the campaign trail.

Emergency doctor Ko Wen-je led the team which operated on financier Sean Lien after Lien was attacked at a rally in November 2010.

Now they are rivals in the intense battle for the influential post of Taipei mayor, with voters going to the polls Saturday.

Independent candidate Ko, 55, has surged ahead of Beijing-friendly Lien, who is son of a vice president and running for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.

Maverick Ko's lead in opinion polls reflects disenchantment with the KMT government over fears of increased Chinese influence, a slowing economy and a string of food scandals.

Polls show the KMT is likely to take a beating in Saturday's elections, which will see 20,000 candidates contest a record 11,130 seats and are an important barometer for a presidential vote in 2016.

Losing Taipei, a KMT stronghold, would be a major embarrassment for the government.

Lucky escape

With all eyes on the capital, both candidates looked back to the dramatic shooting which shocked Taiwan.

"If the bullet had struck me just half a centimetre higher, it could have taken my life... I am still here," Lien told AFP.

"Because of my strong sense of purpose, I chose to embrace the crowds again." Lien was at a Taipei rally supporting a KMT candidate when he was shot.

The gunman, a local gang member, was sentenced to life for attempted murder. The attacker said he had been targeting the candidate over a personal dispute, but hit Lien by mistake.

Lien thanked Ko at a pre-election press conference for "helping me through my life crisis" - but added "he was probably not the most vital person" during the procedure.

The comments are typical of the thinly veiled animosity between the two, with mudslinging between both camps at fever-pitch as the election draws near.

Ko, who was head of the trauma department at National Taiwan University Hospital when Lien was shot, has played down his role.

"I was coordinating and organising the overall emergency treatment process (of Lien) but did not participate in the surgery," he told AFP.

But he says that his background as a doctor has won him voters' confidence.

"I am a political novice and I do not have a political party background... as a doctor, I am not bound by ideologies... I quickly gained the public trust when I entered politics."

'A breath of fresh air'

Ko has positioned himself as a champion of social justice while Lien, 44, is pledging to attract foreign investment and "internationalise" Taipei.

But Lien's "princeling" image is working against him, analysts say.

"Some people have concerns about Lien's rich and powerful family background, while Ko is very different and unconventional so in a sense he is like a breath of fresh air to some voters," said George Tsai, a political scientist at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

But he added that Ko was "much too outspoken and... might create more problems than he can resolve".

Ko's campaign has not been trouble-free - he has alienated women with misogynistic gaffes, including describing a female KMT candidate as "young and pretty and just fit to sit behind a (department store) counter".

Both Ko and Lien are treading carefully around the key issue of China.

Ties between Taiwan and China have improved markedly since President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT came to power in 2008.

But China still regards the self-ruled island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, after it split in 1949 following a civil war.

Opposition to a trade pact with the mainland led to mass student-led protests and a three-week occupation of the parliament earlier this year.

Lien has emphasised the importance of Taiwan's trade links "not only with China but with the rest of the world", while Ko has not ruled out working with Beijing on trade issues.

For some jaded voters though, change is the most important factor.

"If Lien wins, things will continue the way they were," said teacher Angela Shen in Taipei. "But if Ko wins, at least everything will be different."