Opposition Wins Taiwan Presidential Vote

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) -- Taiwan's opposition candidate won the presidential election Saturday, a victory many hope will defuse decades of tension with China over the neighboring island's aspirations for independence.

Taiwan's 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.

Confetti snowed down on giddy followers at Ma Ying-jeou's headquarters and fireworks exploded in the sky, celebrating his victory over Frank Hsieh, a former premier whose party support Taiwan's independence.

Ma's win returns the presidency to the Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for five decades before suffering defeats in the past two elections.

Ma should be relatively palatable to Beijing because the Nationalists ostensibly favor unification with China. Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the Communist Party took over the mainland in 1949.

Ma, 57, promised voters he will try to negotiate a peace treaty with Beijing and deepen Taiwan's already robust economic relationship with the mainland. But he pledged that he wouldn't negotiate unification with Beijing because the vast majority of Taiwanese didn't want to become part of the communist mainland.

"I will make it crystal clear that Taiwan will be a stakeholder and will not rock the boat in the region. By stakeholder, I mean peacemaker," he said.

For the past eight years, Chinese leaders have refused to talk to Chen. Beijing deeply distrusted the independence-leaning Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party because he rejected China's insistence on unification.

China has repeatedly said the island must eventually unify or endure a punishing war. A conflict could quickly involve the U.S., which has long sent strong hints that it may defend the island of 23 million people if the Chinese attack.

The referendum asked voters if they would support the island's application to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan, rather than under its long-standing official title, Republic of China. About 5.5 million "yes" votes were counted when approximately 8.5 million votes were necessary for passage, election commission figures show.

"The referendum did not pass," the Chinese government said in a statement. "The referendum result expresses that 'Taiwan independence' has failed to win people's hearts."

China's official Xinhua News Agency reported on Ma's victory in what it called the island's "leadership election" - reflecting Beijing's refusal to recognize Taiwan's government.

Ma won 58 percent of the votes compared to 41.5 percent for his challenger, according to the Central Election Commission. Turnout was 76 percent, the commission said.

After the vote, Ma - a former justice minister who also once served as Taipei's mayor - said Chen often angered Beijing and Washington with provocative China policies.

"When we improve relations with the mainland, we will also strengthen our security ties with Washington," Ma told reporters.

But the president-elect says he will not be a pushover. He insists that China should dismantle the more than 1,000 missiles it has aimed at Taiwanese targets.

President Bush on Saturday called Taiwan "a beacon of democracy" and said the election provides a fresh opportunity for China and Taiwan to peacefully resolve their differences.

"It falls to Taiwan and Beijing to build the essential foundations for peace and stability by pursuing dialogue through all available means and refraining from unilateral steps that would alter the cross-Strait situation," Bush said.

Ma says he favors creating a common economic market with China and opening direct air and shipping links across the Taiwan Strait. He 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.

Saturday's election was about much more than China policy. Many voters were fed up with corruption scandals, legislative bickering and the sputtering economy. Chen himself was enormously unpopular.

Although Ma's victory was widely seen as a prelude to a calmer era across the Taiwan Strait, many analysts were split on how fast changes would happen.

"There is a window of opportunity for Taipei and Beijing to discuss peaceful arrangements to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait," said Andrew Yang, a defense expert at Taipei's Council of Advanced Political Studies.

However, George Tsai, political science professor at Taipei's Chinese Culture University, said Ma would probably move slowly with China because he wanted to reassure voters he will not sell out Taiwan's interests. Hsieh frequently warned voters that Ma would be too soft with Beijing.

"Even if Ma can manage to resume cross-strait dialogue and build mutual trust with Beijing, it probably will not happen in the first two years," Tsai said.

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