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Landslide election victory for Taiwan opposition leader

President-elect Ma Ying-jeou has pledged to improve ties with China and boost defense spending.

March 23, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Opposition party candidate Ma Ying-jeou won a landslide victory Saturday in Taiwan's presidential election, paving the way for greater attention to the economy and improved ties with the United States and China.

"Taiwan will be a responsible stakeholder," Ma told reporters at his Nationalist Party campaign headquarters.

Analysts attributed Ma's 17-percentage-point win to voter frustration with President Chen Shui-bian, known for his policy reversals, pro-independence rhetoric and rapid-fire staff changes.

"I'm really happy," businesswoman Jill Yeh, 51, said in front of Ma's campaign headquarters as thousands of people shouted, blasted horns, set off fireworks and held babies aloft. "We've all suffered enough."

Two controversial nonbinding referendums on whether Taiwan should apply to the United Nations for membership were defeated. Beijing would have seen passage of the measures as destabilizing and a threat to China's sovereignty.

Ma, a Harvard law graduate, vowed to allocate 3% of the island's gross domestic product to defense spending, a pledge welcomed in Washington by some who believe that Taiwan has not done enough to safeguard its security. China has viewed Taiwan as part of its territory since the end of a civil war in 1949 and has vowed to bring it under Chinese control by force if necessary.

During his campaign, Ma, a former Taipei mayor, pledged to strengthen business ties with China, including the pursuit of a common economic market.

Ma, 57, told reporters Saturday night that he would start negotiating with China on relatively easy issues immediately after taking office in May, including direct air links and opening the way for more Chinese tourists.

He said he would pursue a peace deal with China, but only if Beijing stops targeting the island. Taiwan believes China has approximately 1,000 missiles aimed at it.

"I don't want to negotiate peace under the threat of war," Ma said.

Analysts cautioned that Ma, a likable fluent English speaker who has worked in New York, could be hurt by inflated voter expectations on improved relations with Beijing.

China may not be in the mood for concessions given its current embattled state over its crackdown on widespread protests among its ethnic Tibetan population, analysts said.

Beijing may also want to test the mild-mannered leader for weakness and push for acceptance of its "One China" principle, which claims authority over the island. China did not immediately react to Ma's victory.

"He's promised a lot of things, but to deliver he needs Beijing's endorsement," said Wu Yu-shan, an analyst with Academia Sinica think tank in Taipei. "Beijing can afford to play wait-and-see. Ma is under pressure to deliver."

Emerging from a polling station in a classroom at the Rixin Elementary School in Taipei, taxi driver Wu Jin-hwa, 51, said his vote for Ma reflected frustration over the government's poor performance and corruption scandals. "The economy is the No. 1 priority," he said. "For us, rice is more important than anything."

Ma won 58.45% of the vote, the most ever in a Taiwanese presidential election, against 41.55% for Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Voter turnout was 76%.

Ma comes to office with a sizable margin and a Nationalist majority in parliament.

"This is a big mandate," Ma said. "But the mandate clearly says Taiwan should be more open, more pragmatic."

Some saw Ma's victory as an end to the divisive mainland-born versus native-Taiwanese politics pursued by Chen in the absence of a strong economic record.

Hong Kong-born Ma worked to bridge the gap during his campaign, frequently speaking in the Taiwanese dialect, appealing to Taiwanese identity and threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics in August because of China's Tibet crackdown.

But Ma heads a party that ruled Taiwan for decades in corrupt, authoritarian fashion. Some question whether Ma has the force of personality to shake up the party, attack institutional corruption and change a culture of entitlement.

"That's the million-dollar question," said Emile Sheng, a professor at Soochow University here. "I lean toward the view that he's not strong enough."

Others argue, however, that he will show his mettle once in the top job, knowing that party reform is essential to his reelection in 2012.

Ma's call for closer ties with China and the pro-unification stance of his party should help reduce regional tension. "We can now reasonably hope to see improvement in relations along all three legs of the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle," said Alan Romberg, an analyst with the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

However, Ma has staked out his distance from Taiwan's giant neighbor. He has attended memorial services for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and has called on Beijing to face up to its killing of unarmed student protesters. He has met with members of the Falun Gong, a religious group reviled by the Chinese leadership. And he has passed on opportunities to visit the mainland.

"I don't think he'll do anything radical," said Anita Yang, a 25-year-old student and Ma supporter. "We need to give him a chance."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Tsai Ting-I in Taiwan contributed to this report.

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