Ties with China a key issue as Taiwan goes to polls
TAIPEI, Taiwan, Saturday (AP) - Taiwanese voters were deciding today whether to stick with a party whose pro-independence bent has led to rocky relations with rival China or switch to one pushing for a reduction of tensions and more economic engagement with the island's giant neighbor.
More than 17 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the island's fourth direct presidential election. A turnout of more than 75 percent was expected during the sunny, warm day.
Taiwanese were also voting on two referendums calling on the government to work for the island's entry into the United Nations. To pass, about 63 percent of voters would need to say yes _ a tall order because many people were expected to boycott the process.
In the presidential race, front-runner Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Nationalists and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's Frank Hsieh both say they want to turn the corner on the confrontational China policies of the outgoing government.
But they remain divided on how best to deal with Beijing, which is both a huge opportunity for the island's powerful business community and a looming threat to its evolving democracy.
Taiwan and the mainland split amid civil war in 1949, and China still considers the island to be part of its territory. Beijing has threatened to attack if Taiwan rejects unification and seeks a permanent break.
Hsieh, a former premier, voted early at an elementary school in the southern port of Kaohsiung, the island's second-largest city, where he was once mayor. After casting his ballot, he told reporters he felt confident.
''I just hope this election is peaceful,'' he added.
Violent street protests broke out in the past two elections in 2000 and 2004. The demonstrations were led by Ma's Nationalist Party supporters, who were angry about losing the votes.
Ma, a former justice minister and Taipei mayor, voted in Taipei.
Speaking to reporters near his home, he said he would seek to engage China economically, but would also protect Taiwan's interests -- ''not only its identity but also its security.''
Ma has based his campaign on promises to reverse the pro-independence direction of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and leverage China's white-hot boom to re-energize Taiwan's ailing hi-tech economy.
He has proposed a formal peace treaty with Beijing that would demilitarize the Taiwan Strait, the 160-kilometre-wide (100-mile-wide) waterway that separates the two heavily armed sides. But he has drawn the line at unification, promising it would not be discussed during his presidency.
Economically, he wants to lower barriers to Taiwanese investment on the mainland _ it already amounts to more than US$100 billion (euro65 billion) _ and begin direct air and maritime links between the sides.
Ma is particularly interested in expanding the China-Taiwan high-tech connection, which every year sends billions of dollars' (euros') worth of Taiwan's advanced components to low-cost assembly plants along China's rapidly developing east coast.
That interest resonated with businessman Wang Wen-ho, who cast his ballot for Ma at a Taipei high school.
''The DPP has failed to cope with China's growth in eight years,'' he said. ''We need to engage the mainland to improve the economy.''
While Hsieh is far less likely than Ma to move quickly to improve relations with Beijing, he would work to lower the temperature between the sides.
Hsieh accepts the DPP's independence platform _ but without the special vehemence of Chen, whose support for separatist policies constantly incensed China and caused grave concern in the United States, Taiwan's most important foreign partner.
There are other key China differences between Hsieh and Chen.
Unlike the outgoing leader, Hsieh favors an improvement in commercial relations with the mainland _ at least to a point.
He supports relaxing Chen-imposed strictures on the size of Taiwanese investments in China and increasing charter flights between the sides.
But unlike Ma, Hsieh draws the line at regularly scheduled flights and has not come out in favor of a direct maritime link.
Hsieh has also been warning voters that if he loses, Ma's party will control both the presidency and the legislature, creating a dangerous imbalance of power.
Taipei voter Chen Wei-ting, a 32-year-old banker, shared the same concern and voted for Hsieh. ''I'm worried that if one party had the legislature and presidency, there could be a lot of trouble.''
But the man's wife, Chen Chia-chia, a 25-year-old businesswoman, said she supported Ma. ''The Nationalist Party did a good job when they were in power before,'' she said, ''so I think everything will be OK.''