Taiwanese voters signaled a desire for continued rapprochement with mainland China on Saturday, reelecting President Ma Ying-jeou, whose first term saw a rapid warming of ties with Beijing.
Mr. Ma declared victory less than four hours after polls closed, as televised results showed him building a seemingly insurmountable lead over rival Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. With over 90 percent of the vote counted, the official Central Election Commission said Mr. Ma was ahead with 51.6 per cent to 45.7 percent for Ms. Tsai.
"This is not my personal victory, the victory belongs to all Taiwanese," Mr. Ma told throngs of elated supporters at the Taipei headquarters of his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party. "They told us that we are on the right track."
Mr. Ma's re-election is likely to be greeted with cheers in Beijing – where President Hu Jintao has made warmer ties with Taipei a central plank of his foreign policy – and sighs of relief in Washington, where some feared a return to confrontation between China and Taiwan if Ms. Tsai and the DPP won the vote.
Taiwanese were "voting for consistency or continuity versus uncertainty," said Alexander Huang, a professor of political science at Tamkang Univeristy in Taipei. He said the win was "a confirmation of Ma Ying-jeou's policy towards the mainland."
Mr. Ma's Kuomintang Party also looked set to win at least a plurality of seats in legislative elections that were simultaneously held, although it the KMT was on pace to win fewer seats than it held going into the vote.
Mr. Ma's margin of victory in the presidential race was also smaller than four years ago when he captured 58 per cent of the vote. Many saw the drop as signalling that some Taiwanese were uncomfortable with the idea of getting too close too fast to their giant cousin across the Strait of Taiwan.
"Ma's hands will be even more tightened, given the close race and the [reduced number of]seats for KMT in the parliament," Prof. Huang said.
After eight years of strained relations while the DPP's Chen Shui-bian was president, Taiwan and China rapidly signed a series of pacts after Mr. Ma, a former Taipei mayor, came to office in 2008. The two sides established direct air, shipping and postal links for the first time since the Communists troops routed the KMT army in 1949, forcing them to retreat to island, which has existed in political limbo ever since.
The new ties clearing the way for a surge in cross-Strait trade and allowed millions of mainland Chinese tourists to visit the island. More controversially, the two sides inked the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010, a trade deal that saw each side eliminate tariffs on hundreds of goods but which Mr. Ma's critics say pulled Taiwan into Beijing's economic orbit.
"All of our trade is going to China now, which means our economy will soon be governed by China and we will not have control of it ourselves. It's another way for Taiwan to be governed by China," said Stanley Chen, a 30-year-old industrial engineer who said he voted for Mr. Ma four years ago but cast his ballot for Ms. Tsai on Saturday.
Mr. Ma's once-comfortable lead evaporated early in the campaign when he mused out loud about the possibility of signing a full-on peace deal with China's Communist leadership sometime in the next decade, a position the 61-year-old was forced to quickly backpedal away from, promising to hold a referendum before entering into any such negotiations. But his poll numbers plunged and the race was considered too close to call heading into the final days of the campaign.
Nonetheless, the mild-mannered Mr. Ma overcame a challenge from not only from Ms. Tsai – who was seeking to become Taiwan's first female president – but also veteran KMT figure James Soong, whose independent candidacy was expected to draw voters away from the incumbent. However, support for Mr. Soong – who once looked set to win around 10 per cent of the vote – seemed to bleed away in the final days as KMT strategists raised the fear that he would split the vote and help elect Ms. Tsai. Official results showed Mr. Soong set to take just under 3 per cent of the vote.
"A lot of voters, when the final decision came, they probably went back to vote for Ma, instead of voting for Soong, worried about splitting the vote and delivering the presidency to Tsai Ing-wen," said Yen Chen-shen, research fellow in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University.
Mr. Ma was also boosted by an estimated 200,000 Taiwanese living and working in mainland China who returned to cast their ballots, some at the encouragement of their employers. Most were expected to support Mr. Ma and a continuation of his Beijing-friendly policies.
"My family told me I had to come back and vote. They said if you don't come back, Ma Ying-jeou could lose by one ballot," said Sherry Yen, a 23-year-old trader who lives in Hong Kong but returned to cast her ballot in central Taipei yesterday. Her mother works in the neighbouring Chinese city of Shenzhen, and also returned to vote for Mr. Ma.
The result was a disappointment for the 55-year-old Ms. Tsai and the DPP, who until the last minute held out hope for an upset win. Nonetheless, the party could claim to have recovered from the depths of four years ago, when the corruption associated with Mr. Chen 's government handed Mr. Ma an easy victory. Mr. Chen is now in prison, serving a 20-year sentence after being convicted after leaving office of corruption and abuse of authority.
Ms. Tsai told supporters Saturday night that she would resign as party leader. "I will shoulder full responsibility," she said shortly after conceding defeat and congratulating Mr. Ma.