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Asia-Pacific
Taiwan votes for a new president
Vote pits China-friendly incumbent against rival wary of Beijing, in closely watched election.
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2012 08:54

Taiwanese have voted in a tight presidential election to decide who will run the island and manage crucial ties with China over the next four years.

Voting for presidential and parliamentary elections closed at 4:00pm local time on Saturday.

About 18 million of island's voters across 15,000 polling stations queued up to choose between the pro-China incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, and his main challenger, Tsai Ing-wen, a China-sceptic.

Nearly 200,000 Taiwanese have returned from overseas for the poll, according to local media reports.

Both the main contestants Ma of Kuomintang (KMT) party and Tsai of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were confident as they cast their vote early.

"I see a little sunshine now," Ma said after casting his vote at a polling station in the capital, Taipei.

"I'm very happy, I urge everyone to come out early and vote. This weather should help the voting rate."

Tsai, casting her ballot at a school in a Taipei suburb, said she was mentally prepared to become the first female president of Taiwan.

"I hope we will be able to give you a full explanation after the vote is counted," she said, when pressed for details.

Al Jazeera’s Steve Chao, reporting from Taipei, said: "Will voters here in Taiwan agree with Ma’s pro-China policy over the last four years or will they turn to opposition Presidential candidate Tsai."

"Ma says his pro-China policies have worked. He points to the fact that there have been more than 500 direct flights every week between the two sides for the first time in 60 years," he said.

"He says he has ended Taiwan’s isolationist path and it has also helped Taiwan’s standing on the international front," the Al Jazeera correspondent said.

"His opponent, however, has criticised him for selling Taiwan’s sovereignty perhaps, taking Taiwan down the road where there is no going back on island’s sovereignty."

Opinion polls

For the past ten days, no opinion polls have been allowed, but final surveys published last week showed a race too close to call, with Ma's KMT party leading Tsai by as little as three percentage points.

Al Jazeera’s Chao said: "What's at stake is the future of Taiwan's course with China, perhaps not just the next few years, but for many decades to come."

An extra factor of uncertainty in this year's election is the candidacy of James Soong, a former KMT heavyweight, who has minimal chance of winning but could take crucial votes away from Ma.

The presidential vote coincides with a poll for Taiwan's 113-member parliament, where the KMT currently has a majority.

Ma and Tsai, both former law academics with doctorates from Harvard and the London School of Economics respectively, held a flurry of rallies and motorcades island-wide on the last day of the campaign on Friday.

Security was tight around candidates, as officials worked to prevent a repeat of 2004's election-eve shooting that wounded then-president Chen Shui-bian and his deputy.

Police quickly subdued a woman in her 30s after she started waving a knife around outside Tsai's campaign office in central Taipei. No one was hurt, according to police, who did not give a motive for the woman's behaviour.

With presidential elections looming in the US, and a power transition under way in China, Washington and Beijing will be keeping a close eye on the poll in Taiwan, which has been a traditional trouble spot between the two powers.

Ties with Beijing

Taiwan has governed itself since 1949, but China claims it as part of its territory, and has never ruled out the use of force to bring about reunification.

"The chance to change the future is in our hands tomorrow," Tsai said.

The 55-year-old Tsai has reportedly caused concern in Washington over her views on relations with China, promised stable ties with Beijing as she rode an open-top jeep to canvass voters in the northern city of Keelung.

Ma, meanwhile, covered large parts of the island, including the south, where  the KMT faces an uphill struggle.

"Since the KMT assumed power, ties across the Taiwan Straits have improved ... and the economy is getting better and better," he told a crowd in the southern city of Kaohsiung, a hotbed of DPP support.

Ma is campaigning on his record, since assuming power in 2008, of swiftly improving ties with China, culminating with a sweeping trade pact signed one and a half years ago.

His candidacy got a boost on Friday when 127 executives, many based in the north's Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park, the island's "Silicon Valley", placed an advertisement in the Apple Daily and Liberty Times giving him their backing.

The notice called on voters to support the so-called "1992 consensus", a vague formula under which Beijing and Taipei agree there is only one China, but each side maintains its own definition of what that means.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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