Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou won a close re-election fight today, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his populist-minded opponent.
With about 90% of the vote counted, the official Central Election Commission said Ma had garnered 51% of the total against 46.3% 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 %.
“This is not my personal victory, the victory belongs to all Taiwanese,” Ma told thousands of jubilant supporters in central 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 three and a half years in office, Ma has lowered tensions across the 100-mile-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 emphasised 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.
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 exports to China last year were electronic items such as television displays and mobile phone chips, there was also a big upsurge in agricultural sales from southern Taiwan, long a stronghold of Tsai’s party