The opposition candidate in Taiwan's presidential elections, Lien Chan, believes in taking a conciliatory approach to China - a stance that has won him both praise from the business community and the ire of pro-independence voters.

For Lien Chan, 67, being an opposition leader is something new. The former vice president of Taiwan heads the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist party, which governed the island unopposed for five decades.

Four years ago, Mr. Lien was defeated in the race for president, after some members of the KMT split from the party. Since then, he has helped patch up many of the internal disputes, and the party has been unified in opposing many of President Chen Shui-bian's policies over the past few years.

Mr. Lien, who comes from one of Taiwan's wealthiest families, has his base of support among Taiwan's so-called "mainlanders," or refugees who came from mainland China to escape the 1949 Communist takeover.

China sees the self-governed island as a part of its territory and has threatened to retake it by force if it moves toward independence.

Analysts say the continued threat from Beijing has solidified the business community's support for Lien Chan. Many of Taiwan's businesspeople view incumbent President Chen Shui-bian's focus on the national identity issue as a provocation that could lead to war with China at the worst, and at the very least disrupt commerce.

Lien supporters say Mr. Chen's emphasis on the independence issue has also hampered negotiations for direct air links with the mainland.

Senator Hwang Jih-jiau is with the People First Party, which has joined forces with Lien Chan. He said President Chen's policies have hurt commerce across the Taiwan Strait. "He promised our entrepreneurs, our businessmen, and Taiwanese businessmen that he would do all that is possible to build the direct air and sea links," he said. "But it turned out all his promises are empty promises. Our entrepreneurs, our businessmen still [are] crying for the lack of air and sea links."

Without the links, Taiwan businesspeople must travel through other cities to reach their factories on the mainland. Cargo, too, must go through another port instead of quickly sailing across the Strait.

Lien Chan has based his campaign largely on pointing to the economic downturn that Taiwan experienced during Mr. Chen's time in office. He has found a ready audience among the unemployed and others who are suffering financially.

A KMT supporter, who identified himself as Hwang and who owns a lighting-fixture business, said his profit has dropped by 40 percent because of poor sales in the past two years. He accused the Chen administration of economic mismanagement.

Mr. Hwang said he is voting for Mr. Lien because he said the economy is more important than the issue of national identity. "Lien Chan has good economic advisers. He is open-minded, unlike Chen Shui-bian," he said. "Mr. Chen is very narrow-minded. He raised this whole identity issue. I think it was wrong to focus on that."

For decades, the Kuomintang pledged to return to mainland China, and oust the Communists from power. Although the party has abandoned that goal of unification, Mr. Lien has chosen to take a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing than President Chen does.

He has promised to work to establish direct air links within a year of being elected, and says the question of unification should be left to future generations.

"The KMT's idea is leaving the ultimate solution to future generations," said Szu-Yin Ho, a politics professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University and an adviser to Mr. Lien. "This idea is quite pragmatic. What can you do otherwise? By strongly advocating Taiwan independence I think both sides' positions or stances could become more rigid. Ultimately, the situation would become a confrontation between two nationalisms. And, the KMT/PFP coalition does not see much benefit to this."

Mr. Lien, who has promised to visit China if he wins the election, has also drawn criticism for his softer approach to the mainland authorities. The sharpest criticism has come from some Taiwanese who have accused him of being pro-Beijing.

While Mr. Lien is a respected politician, he is seen as a having less charisma than Mr. Chen.

The president also has been able to appeal to some voters by stressing that he is native-born Taiwanese. While Mr. Lien's family has its roots in Taiwan, he was born on the mainland.

Until recently, polls showed Mr. Lien with a slight lead over Chen Shui-bian, but some surveys have shown the margin to be narrowing in the days before the election. Analysts attribute the swing to the latest economic reports, which show performance improved dramatically in the last quarter of 2003.