TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou won a close re-election fight Saturday, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his populist-minded opponent.
With about 90 percent of the vote counted, the official Central Election Commission said Ma had garnered 51.0 percent of the total against 46.3 percent for Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party. A third candidate, James Soong, once a heavyweight with Ma's Nationalist Party, had 2.7 percent.
"This is not my personal victory, the victory belongs to all Taiwanese," Ma told thousands of jubilant supporters in downtown Taipei. "They told us that we are on the right track."
The election revolved around Ma's claims that his signature policy of tying Taiwan's high-tech economy ever closer to China's lucrative markets was good for the democratic island's 23 million people. During his 3 1/2 years in office, Ma has lowered tensions across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait to their lowest level since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949, mostly by sponsoring a series of bold commercial initiatives between the island and the mainland.
Tsai's campaign emphasized bread and butter issues, amid charges that Ma's policies had spawned growing income inequality and soaring urban housing prices that pushed many young middle class and working class people out of the market. She also accused Ma of undermining Taiwan's de facto independence in exchange for economic benefits from China — a claim meant to resonate with her party's pro-independence base.
Ma's victory will please Beijing, which sees him as the best hope for promoting its eventual goal of bringing Taiwan under its control. Since the sides split 62 years ago, China has never wavered from its claim that Taiwan is part of its territory. Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao has made achieving progress on the Taiwan question a priority, and Ma's victory will help secure his legacy as a successful practitioner of Taiwan outreach — by persuasion rather than force.
Still, Hu funded a military expansion that made the use of force a more credible option. A Ma defeat would have strengthened military hard-liners as Hu prepares to step aside to make way for a younger group of leaders.
Ma's victory will also be welcomed in the United States, Taiwan's most important security partner. Washington sees Ma as a safe bet to keep the peace with Beijing. The last thing the U.S. wants now is additional tensions with China, particularly as it works to repair its economy, wind down costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engage with economically vibrant East Asia.
While there is little appetite in Taiwan for political union with Beijing, a majority of Taiwanese do want to engage the mainland commercially, because they see it as an economic force whose footprint is constantly growing.
Ma's policies spoke to their perception.
Since taking office, he has sanctioned big upsurges in direct flights across the strait, given the green light to accelerated Chinese tourist visits to Taiwan and opened the door to Chinese investment.
His signature achievement has been the completion of a China trade deal in June 2010 that lowered tariffs on hundreds of goods. While most of Taiwan's $124 billion worth of exports to China last year were electronic items such as television displays and cellphone chips, there was also a big upsurge in agricultural sales from southern Taiwan, long a stronghold of Tsai's party.
"China is a major economic power, with the world's biggest demand for goods," said Ma voter Frank Chang, a Taipei banker. "As a small island, Taiwan cannot isolate itself from the mainland and still maintain a viable economy."
A former justice minister and mayor of Taipei, Ma won the support of Taiwanese more with his policies than his personality. Low-key and wonkish, the 61-year-old Harvard Law School graduate has sometimes seemed ill at ease in trying to connect with ordinary Taiwanese. But his insistence that his China approach was popular in both Beijing and Washington resonated with voters seeking stability and prosperity in an increasingly globalized world.