Image: Presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou
Wally Santana  /  AP
Taiwan's Nationalist Party Ma Ying-jeou shakes hands with supporters as he parades through neighborhoods of Taipei on Friday. Ma went on to defeat the government and win the presidential election.
updated 3/22/2008 3:49:55 PM ET 2008-03-22T19:49:55

Taiwan's opposition candidate cruised to victory in the presidential election Saturday, promising to expand economic ties with China while protecting the island from being swallowed up politically by its giant communist neighbor.

Fireworks lit up the sky over Ma Ying-jeou's headquarters, and cheering supporters put up victory posters as they waited for the former Taipei mayor to give a victory speech. Across town, a crying crowd gathered at the campaign office for ruling party candidate Frank Hsieh, a former premier.

President Bush on Saturday said the election showed the "strength and vitality" of Taiwan's democracy, a democracy he called a "beacon" to Asia and the world.

Ma won 58 percent of the votes compared to 41.5 percent for Hsieh, according to the preliminary count by the Central Election Commission.

'We won!'
"We won!" shouted Jason Hu, a high-ranking member of Ma's Nationalist Party.

A ruling party spokeswoman, Hsieh Hsin-ni, told supporters, "We are accepting this defeat."

Ma and Hsieh have both said they want a less confrontational relationship with China. But they were divided on how best to deal with Beijing, which presents both a huge opportunity for the island's powerful business community and a looming threat to its evolving democracy.

Bush said it's Taiwan's and Beijing's responsibility to "build the essential foundations for peace and stability" through dialogue and without unilateral action.

Taiwan and the mainland split amid civil war in 1949, but China still considers the island to be part of its territory. Beijing has threatened to attack if Taiwan rejects unification and seeks a permanent break.

The Central Election Commission also said two referendums calling on the government to work for the island's entry into the United Nations failed. China had warned that the referendums threatened stability in the region.

Ma has based his campaign on promises to reverse the pro-independence direction of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and leverage China's white-hot economic boom to re-energize Taiwan's ailing high-tech economy.

He has proposed a formal peace treaty with Beijing that would demilitarize the Taiwan Strait, 100-mile-wide waterway that separates the two heavily armed sides. But he has drawn the line at unification, promising it would not be discussed during his presidency.

Economically, he wants to lower barriers to Taiwanese investment on the mainland -- it already amounts to more than $100 billion -- and begin direct air and maritime links between the sides.

Expanding high-tech connection
Ma is particularly interested in expanding the China-Taiwan high-tech connection, which every year sends billions of dollars' worth of Taiwan's advanced components to low-cost assembly plants along China's rapidly developing east coast.

That interest resonated with businessman Wang Wen-ho, who cast his ballot for Ma at a Taipei high school.

"The DPP has failed to cope with China's growth in eight years," he said. "We need to engage the mainland to improve the economy."

Hsieh has accepted his party's independence platform, but without the special vehemence of Chen, whose support for separatist policies constantly incensed China and caused grave concern in the United States, Taiwan's most important foreign partner.

Hsieh's party had used the last day of campaigning to fan outrage over China's handling of protests in Tibet, warning the crackdown could be replicated in Taiwan.

He also had warned voters that if he loses, Ma's party will control both the presidency and the legislature, creating a dangerous imbalance of power.

Taipei voter Chen Wei-ting, a 32-year-old banker, shared the same concern and voted for Hsieh. "I'm worried that if one party had the legislature and presidency, there could be a lot of trouble."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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