TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Yesterday, Taiwan elected its first president who had campaigned for closer economic relations with Beijing, paving the way for a considerable lessening of tensions in one of Asia's oldest flash points.
Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Taipei mayor from the Nationalist Party, won by a convincing margin. He prevailed despite a last-minute effort by his opponent, Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party, to caution voters that the Chinese crackdown in Tibet was a warning of what could also happen to Taiwan if it did not stand up to Beijing.
With all votes counted, Ma won 58.45 percent to 41.55 percent, and Hsieh quickly conceded defeat. Clear skies and warm weather until early evening helped produce a heavy voter turnout of 75.7 percent, which tends to help Nationalist candidates like Ma.
Both parties' polls showed an increasingly close race in the final days of campaigning, in contrast with the last polls by news media organizations nearly two weeks ago, which showed Ma ahead by 20 percent. But in election day interviews, voters echoed Ma's stance that closer relations with the mainland and its fast-growing economy represented the island's best hope of returning to the rapid economic growth it enjoyed until the late 1990s.
Jason Lin, a 41-year-old interior designer, said as he left a polling place in Taipei that until this year he had always voted for the Democratic Progressive Party and remained a member. But he crossed party lines to vote for Ma yesterday because he was convinced that Taiwan's economic survival depended on closer ties. "If we don't get into China's market, we are locked into our own country," he said.
Beijing officials have been wooing the Nationalists for years, even serving as hosts to visits to the mainland over the past three years by those party leaders who are especially eager for eventual political reunification with the mainland, like Lien Chan, the party's unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2004.
Ma has taken a more cautious approach to the mainland, attending annual vigils for those killed during the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 and denouncing the mainland's repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement over the past decade.
During the campaign, he ruled out any discussion of political reunification while calling for the introduction of direct, regularly scheduled flights to Shanghai and Beijing and an end to Taiwan's extensive limits on its companies' ability to invest on the mainland.
Chinese government officials had no immediate response to the election results yesterday evening, but they had made little secret of their hope that Ma would win.
"China has a love-hate relationship with Ma - when I visited China last November, they criticized Ma a lot, and then asked me to vote for Ma," said Yen Chen-Shen, a political scientist at National Chengchi University.
U.S. officials have been deeply frustrated with President Chen Shui-bian, also of the Democratic Progressive Party, and have sought to lessen tensions between Taiwan and the mainland while preserving the political status quo. Chen is stepping down after two four-year terms. But the Bush administration has also been irritated by the reluctance of Nationalists in the legislature to vote for purchases of U.S. weapon systems, including systems that President Bush offered for sale in 2001 but which Taiwan still has not purchased.
Many in Taiwan have preferred to spend money on social programs while relying on the U.S. military to deter aggression by the mainland.
President Bush, in a statement, congratulated Ma on the victory and called it a step toward better relations with the mainland. "I believe the election provides a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences," he said.
Following his inauguration, scheduled for May 20, Ma will have almost complete political power to pursue his agenda. His party and two tiny affiliated parties together took three-quarters of the legislature in January elections.