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Taiwan Re-Elects President Ma

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou declares his victory in the presidential election, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Taipei, Taiwan. Ma won a close re-election fight, leveraging his message of greater prosperity through expanded ties with China to beat his pop

Taiwan's incumbent president, Nationalist Ma Ying-jeou, easily won a second term in elections on Saturday, giving him four more years to improve relations with China. Ma beat opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen by more than five percent. His victory is seen as a mandate to keep peace with Beijing while managing wealth-distribution issues at home.

The president, who was first elected in 2008 on pledges to shore up ties with China and reap gains from its massive markets, won Saturday’s re-election bid with nearly 6.9 million votes. His administration says that victory after a tense campaign will lead to more deals with China on trade and economic cooperation.

Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is more sympathetic than the Nationalists to calls for Taiwan's independence, and she also was attempting to become the Taiwan's first female leader. She conceded defeat and apologized to supporters at DPP headquarters on Saturday.

Opening the door to peace with Beijing

The victorious president says he is open to signing a formal peace accord with Beijing, since negotiations during his first term eased the threat of war that previously hung over the island. Ma said in his victory speech Saturday night that he will keep looking to China for new opportunities.

During the next four years, he says, relations between Taiwan and mainland China will become more harmonious and more interactive, while the odds of conflict will decrease. Ma says long-term peace and stability with Beijing are assured.

The 61-year-old former mayor of Taipei is credited with giving new life to Taiwan’s struggling economy. The links with China he established have allowed the industrialized island to compete better with its export-reliant rivals such as Japan and South Korea.

President Ma’s predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, had angered China by seeking constitutional independence for the self-ruled island. Talks on any topic between leaders in Taipei and Beijing became impossible, and Chen's policies also angered Taiwan’s staunchest informal ally, the United States, as Washington tried to get along with both sides.

China and Taiwan have already signed 16 accords worth billions of U.S. dollars to Taiwanese companies. Beijing welcomes further talks in the hope they will lead to political dialogue and eventual reunification.

The communist leadership in Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war in the 1940s, and it has never ruled out the possible use of force to seize control of the island. Ma’s Nationalist Party ruled all of China prior to the communist revolution on the mainland, but fled to Taiwan more than half a century ago and established what was seen then as a rival government.

Fixing the economy

But in Saturday's election many Taiwanese were more worried about speed bumps in the local economy than relations with mainland China. Wages have risen just 5.8 percent over the past decade, and university graduates complain that career jobs are hard to find as a wealth gap widens. President Ma pledged in his victory speech to resolve those problems.

Political experts say voters saw Ma as a safe choice for president because of his experience, and that his rival did not have a clear-cut position on either economic or political issues.

Moni Tsai, a 32-year-old artist who voted in suburban Taipei, acknowledges there has been progress, but he says more jobs must be created.

In the past four years, he says, there have been ups and downs, but the ideal situation envisioned four years ago when Ma first took over has not materialized. The government said in 2008 that things would be great, he says, but not enough has been done to achieve that vision for the future.

Taiwan’s economy slipped into deep recession in 2009 after the world financial crisis, but recovered quickly in 2010 with help from a massive government stimulus package. It was on track last year to grow by more than four percent.

Taiwan expects to sign an investment protection guarantee with China, possibly later this year. Such a pact would help as many as a million businesses on the other side. Island officials also aim to slash hundreds of tariffs on imports traded between the two sides.

In her campaign, President Ma’s chief opponent, Tsai, proposed a list of new measures to revitalize the economy. She wanted trade talks with China, but only if Beijing would demonstrate greater respect for Taiwan's autonomy during negotiations.

Ma’s second term as president will begin on May 20 and end in 2016.