Counting begins in Taiwan poll

Ma Ying-jeou, the opposition leader, has gained an early lead.

    Ying-jeou casts his vote [AFP]

    See also


    US ships deploy ahead of vote


    Taiwan's identity crisis

    Taiwanese voters had to decide whether to stick with a party that has struggled to improve ties with China, or switch to one that promises peace and greater profits from the island's giant neighbour.
    The election pitted Ying-jeou of the KMT party against Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP).
    A turnout of more than 75 per cent was expected to have cast their votes.


    Chen Shui-bian,

    the current president, who steps down in May this year, had

    repeatedly angered Beijing with his

    pro-independence rhetoric.


    Hsieh favours formal independence while Ma Ying-jeou, who leads in opinion polls, wants eventual reunification once China embraces democracy.


    The two candidates had toughened their stances on China following Beijing's crackdown in Tibet.


    Economic issues


    However, analysts say Taiwan's faltering economy would have been the number one issue with voters.


    Both candidates advocate more direct flights, tourism and investment opportunities between Taiwan and China in order to improve the domestic economy.


    Taiwan candidates

    Frank Hsieh


    Candidate for ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)


    Propelled into politics after working as a defence lawyer for political dissidents in 1980


    Focused campaign on environmental issues, the poor and Taiwan's identity


    Has backed cautious opening of Taiwan-China economic links and hopes eventually to accelerate moves to make Taiwan a country distinct from China


    Ma Ying-jeou


    Candidate for nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party


    Unseated Chen Shui-bian, the current president, as mayor of Taipei in 1998


    Focused campaign on reviving Taiwan's economy by introducing common market with mainland China


    Has advocated improving relations with China, signing a peace treaty and halting Taiwan's push for independence

    Al Jazeeera's Hamish MacDonald in Taipei reported that Taiwan's economy is an overriding theme in the elections.


    MacDonald said that there has been an increased awareness among Taiwanese voters that the island's economy is directly anchored to the growth of China.


    However, Beijing has imposed certain limits on conducting business transactions from Taiwan.


    "Taiwan has a growing economy, yet it lags behind its Asian neighbours," MacDonald reported.


    Ralph Cossa from Pacific Forum CSIS, a US based think tank, says:  "Domestic issues, such as the economy and corruption, are bigger than China or foreign policy."

    Aside from selecting a new president in Saturday's election, voters will also be offered a referendum on whether to seek UN membership.


    The initiative, which asks whether Taiwan should seek to join the global body as "Taiwan" instead of its legal name, the Republic of China, has sparked statements of protest from China which sees the move as a further move towards independence.


    Japan, Russia, France and the US have also criticised the referendum as unnecessarily provocative.


    In a sign how sensitive the poll is, two US aircraft carriers have been deployed to an unspecified area near Taiwan during the election for what US defence officials say are training exercises.


    In 1996, during Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, China fired a series of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in a sabre-rattling gesture seen as trying to intimidate voters.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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