TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The Nationalist Party challenger unseated Taipei's popular mayor yesterday in a suspenseful election that was closely watched abroad because of its possible effects on Taiwan's relations with mainland China.
Defeating the incumbent by a surprising 51 percent to 46 percent, according to unofficial results, the challenger, Ma Yin-jeou, 48, established himself as a new star of the Nationalist Party.
"It doesn't matter whether you voted for me or not, my victory is everybody's victory," he said last night in a speech to tens of thousands of wildly celebrating supporters in midtown Taipei.
Beyond the mayoral contest, the Nationalist Party reasserted itself across much of Taiwan.
In elections for the national legislature, which was expanded to include 225 representatives, the party won a commanding 124 seats, according to preliminary estimates.
But it was the mayoral contest, considered too close to call, that captivated the country.
By defeating Chen Shui-bian, 47, Ma set back the career of a man considered a major contender for the presidency in elections in March 2000.
Chen's Democratic Progressive Party pledges to seek eventual independence from mainland China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
The party's ascension to national power would raise tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, while promoting Taiwan's separate status in the world, is formally committed to eventual reunification with the mainland.
This is considered crucial by China, which threatens to attack if Taiwan ever declares legal independence.
The elections were a major setback for the Democratic Progressive Party, which was born in the 1980s in opposition to the Nationalist dictatorship that dated to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled the Communist victory on the mainland.
Chen became Taiwan's first directly elected mayor in 1994 and won high public approval for improving traffic flows and attacking vice.
But some saw him as high-handed, and he lost ground yesterday in former strongholds where his efforts to suppress kara- oke bars and prostitution cost jobs.
He met his match in Ma, a former justice minister and a graduate of Harvard Law School who is known for his scrupulous honesty.
There were few substantive issues in the campaign. Ma promised to do a better job and make Taipei a "world class city."
Ma was greatly helped as many members of the New Party -- which comprises breakaway Nationalists who are strong supporters of reunification with the mainland -- deserted their own candidate to support him and ensure the defeat of Chen.
In legislative elections, too, the New Party suffered a collapse.
Ma overcame a feared bias against "mainlanders" -- those from ** families that fled China in 1949 -- who are sometimes resented by the majority of "native" Taiwanese.
Ma was born in Hong Kong and moved here when he was 1.
"We are going to work with you all together," he said in his victory speech, extolling his ethnically inclusive concept of a "new Taiwan person."
At one point he switched from Mandarin Chinese to the Taiwan dialect.
Pub Date: 12/06/98