Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou greets supporters in New Taipei. (Vincent Yu, Associated…)
Reporting from Taipei, Taiwan — Ever since Taiwan's democracy took shape in the 1990s, elections have revolved around relations with mainland China.
But the hot-button issue of independence from China was bumped from the top of the campaign list in recent months as incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou and main challenger Tsai Ing-wen vied for votes ahead of the presidential election Saturday.
Both major candidates sought to establish themselves as leaders with fail-proof strategies for helping a vast lower-middle class. Voter concerns about jobs, industrial reform and quality of life edged out feelings about Taiwan's status with China.
Ma has led a more than three-year thaw in relations with Beijing that has resulted in numerous economic opportunities for Taiwan, a longtime center for high-tech development. But critics say the economic benefits generated during his presidency have helped big corporations far more than middle- and working-class citizens, a view many say Tsai has used effectively during the campaign.
Taiwan's richest 20% earn six times what the poorest 20% make, according to the government's accounting office. Workers' salaries are flat and career jobs hard to find, causing anger to rise among younger, first-time and swing voters.
"The economy comes first; that's understandable," said George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei. "Maybe life hasn't gotten any better for a few years. People don't feel any improvements."
The friendlier status between Taiwan, an island of about 23 million people, and China and lucrative business deals are expected to continue no matter who wins the presidency, analysts said.
China says Taiwan, where Nationalists fled after their defeat in China's civil war of the 1940s, is an integral part of its territory. In the last few years, China and Taiwan have signed 16 accords worth billions of dollars to the Taiwanese economy. Ma, a Nationalist Party member, in 2008 won a four-year term on pledges to negotiate with Beijing for deals on tourism, trade and transit, and more of the same is expected if he wins reelection.
Taiwan's government expects to sign an investment protection deal with China and see hundreds or thousands of tariff cuts on both sides if Ma remains president.
Tsai, meanwhile, also wants a fruitful relationship with China despite her Democratic Progressive Party's generally cold attitude toward Beijing's communist government. She is less strident than former President Chen Shui-bian, a Democratic Progressive Party member who alienated China with his hard-line push for Taiwanese independence.
Tsai insists that the two sides find a negotiation framework, backed by international rules and broad support at home, that gives Taiwan a measure of autonomy. She rejects a 1992 consensus that says each side recognizes just one China but according to different definitions.
That rejection could endanger talks under a Tsai government, possibly causing Beijing to reduce the flow of tourists and investment, said Li Peng, deputy director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in China.
"In terms of people-to-people ties, they won't get cut off but they will be affected," Li said.
It helps that Chinese leaders have invested four years in building relations with Taiwan through economic links, and are likely to be patient with Tsai, analysts said.
Opinion surveys showed Ma ahead of Tsai, though a third-party candidate, James Soong, could draw votes away from Ma and help Tsai, analysts said.
For many Taiwanese, such as Lee Tien-yu, 50, a nurse from Taipei, the capital, the hope is that the election produces a leader who secures jobs and opportunities more than anything else.
"Taiwan's development is so important," she said. "If today the society is not stable, or if the government is without principle, just doing things for itself, then industry can't compete and I'm afraid Taiwan will fall back. I'm very afraid of that."
Jennings is a special correspondent.