TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan on Saturday elected its first president who had campaigned for closer economic relations with Beijing, paving the way for a considerable lessening of tensions in one of Asia’s oldest flash points.
Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Taipei mayor from the Nationalist Party, won by a convincing margin. He prevailed despite a last-minute effort by his opponent, Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party, to caution voters that the Chinese crackdown in Tibet was a warning of what could happen to Taiwan if it did not stand up to Beijing.
With all votes counted, Mr. Ma won 58.45 percent to 41.55 percent, and Mr. Hsieh quickly conceded defeat. Clear skies and warm weather until early evening helped produce a heavy voter turnout of 75.7 percent, which tends to help Nationalist candidates like Mr. Ma.
Both parties’ polls showed an increasingly close race in the final days of campaigning, in contrast with the last polls by news media organizations nearly two weeks ago, which showed Mr. Ma ahead by 20 percent. But in election day interviews, voters echoed Mr. Ma’s stance that closer relations with the mainland and its fast-growing economy represented the island’s best hope of returning to the rapid economic growth it enjoyed until the late 1990s.
Jason Lin, a 41-year-old interior designer, said as he left a polling place in Taipei that until this year he had voted for the Democratic Progressive Party and remained a member. But he crossed party lines to vote for Mr. Ma on Saturday because he was convinced that Taiwan’s economic survival depended on closer ties.
“If we don’t get into China’s market, we are locked into our own country,” he said.
Beijing officials have been wooing the Nationalists for years, even serving as hosts to visits to the mainland over the past three years by those party leaders who are especially eager for eventual political reunification with the mainland, like Lien Chan, the party’s unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2004.
Mr. Ma has taken a more cautious approach to the mainland, attending annual vigils for the victims of the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing in 1989 and denouncing the mainland’s repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement over the past decade. During the campaign, he ruled out any discussion of political reunification while calling for the introduction of direct, regularly scheduled flights to Shanghai and Beijing and an end to Taiwan’s extensive limits on its companies’ ability to invest on the mainland.
Chinese government officials had no immediate response to the election results on Saturday evening, but had made little secret of their hope that Mr. Ma would win. “China has a love-hate relationship with Ma — when I visited China last November, they criticized Ma a lot, and then asked me to vote for Ma,” said Yen Chen-Shen, a political scientist at National Chengchi University.
American officials have been deeply frustrated with President Chen Shui-bian, also of the Democratic Progressive Party, and have sought to reduce tensions between Taiwan and the mainland while preserving the political status quo. Mr. Chen is stepping down after two four-year terms.
But the Bush administration has also been irritated by the reluctance of Nationalists in the legislature to vote for purchases of American weapon systems, including systems that President Bush offered for sale in 2001 but that Taiwan still has not bought.
Many in Taiwan have preferred to spend money on social programs while relying on the United States military to deter aggression by the mainland, prompting bitter jokes among American military personnel that if mainland military forces ever land on Taiwan, the Taiwanese will fight them to the last American. Cheng Ta-chen, a Nationalist aide to Mr. Ma on security policy, said the Nationalists had not been given enough information by President Chen to understand and approve military purchases.
President Bush, in a statement, congratulated Mr. Ma on the victory and called it a step toward better relations with the mainland. “I believe the election provides a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences,” he said.
After his inauguration, scheduled for May 20, Mr. Ma will have almost complete political power to pursue his agenda. His party and two tiny affiliated parties together took three-quarters of the legislature in January elections. Nationalists also serve as the magistrates, a position akin to mayor, in 15 of Taiwan’s 25 largest cities. The extent of Nationalist control made some voters nervous on Saturday.
Two controversial referendums, calling for Taiwan to apply for membership in the United Nations, also fell well short of passage. Taiwan’s referendum law requires a majority of eligible voters to vote on a referendum for it to be valid. Nationalists called for voters not to cast ballots for either initiative and slightly less than 36 percent of eligible voters did so.
With China strongly opposed to United Nations membership for Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province, the island’s recent efforts to win membership have failed. The United States and China had denounced as provocative the referendum sponsored by the Democratic Progressive Party, which specifically called for the island to apply as Taiwan and not using its legal name, the Republic of China.
The legal name reflects the principle that Taiwan and the mainland still form one China.
Taiwan’s economy grew 5.7 percent last year, but middle-class and working-class incomes have stagnated as an affluent elite has grown more prosperous, often from investments on the mainland.
Much of the island’s manufacturing industry has shifted to the mainland, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese have moved there to manage these operations. Most of them are men aged 25 to 45, leaving a dearth of skills and entrepreneurial energy in Taiwan.