Taiwan Re-Elects President Ma, Bolstering Ties to China

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Jason Lee / Reuters

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou celebrates his re-election as results are announced in Taipei on Jan. 14, 2012

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was re-elected Saturday, a win that will preserve the cross-strait status quo and likely lead to closer ties with China. Ma, a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), fended off a formidable challenge from Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), beating his rival by about 6% and securing a second term. The hard-fought campaign saw the incumbent tout the economic advantages of economic integration with China, while the challenger, Tsai, sidestepped her party’s traditional focus on independence to tackle issues like inequality, unemployment and the environment. “The victory belongs to all Taiwanese,” Ma told a thousands-strong crowd clustered under umbrellas at a rally in Taipei. “They told us that we are on the right track.”

Ma swept to power in 2008 promising improved ties with China. He quickly restored air, shipping and mail links between the neighbors and, in June 2010, signed a landmark trade deal aimed at attracting investment and making it easier for Taiwan businesses to operate in the mainland. Today the relationship between China and Taiwan is the best it’s been since 1949, when retreating Nationalist forces fled to across the strait. Over the course of the campaign, Ma returned again and again to mainland ties, warning that a change in government would anger Beijing. “You don’t want to provoke China,” the President said at a pre-election press conference. “That will not bring any good to Taiwan.”

(READ: TIME’s Exclusive Interview with Ma Ying-jeou)

The election was closely followed by the U.S., which is bound by Congress to help arm Taiwan, and, of course, by China. Both powers bristled at the policies of Tsai’s DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian and are wary of disrupting the slightly brittle status quo. The U.S. did not endorse a candidate, but China made its stance abundantly clear. An editorial in the state-run Global Times warned that a change of government would wreak havoc on Taiwan’s economy, sending stocks crashing and causing businesses to “turn their back on the island in droves.” Several high-profile Taiwan business leaders also threw their weight behind the incumbent. Terry Gou, chief executive of electronics giant Hon Hai, campaigned for Ma, and Chang Yung-fa, chairman of Evergreen Group, said a KMT loss carried the risk of economic collapse. Tens of thousands of Taiwan expatriates, many of whom live and work in China, flew home to vote, presumably bolstering the KMT cause.

Challenger Tsai of the pro-independence DPP maintained that the benefits of economic integration were eluding the average citizen. When triplet toddlers were stopped from donating their piggy banks to her cause (only those of voting age can donate), her team turned the presidential contest into a battle between the “three little pigs” and the China-backed “big bad wolf.” Tens of thousands of people sent their tarnished coin collections to campaign headquarters. The populist tone struck a chord among those frustrated by income inequality and worried about social justice. Her more cautious attitude toward China also won fans among the pro-independence camp. “An independent Taiwan is the hope of my life,” said retired professor Tsai Fun-kun after casting his vote on Saturday. As the island looks ahead to four more years of rapprochement, that dream looks increasingly distant.

But the election was a triumph for all Taiwan citizens in many other ways. This was just the fifth race since the President was first directly elected in 1996. In the years since, the island has become vibrantly democratic, home to raucous rallies and a freewheeling political press. On election day, many families strolled together to the polls, eager to cast their votes and proud to participate. Turnout was high — probably upwards of 80%.

(READ: What’s at Stake in Taiwan’s Election)

As the only true democracy in the Chinese world, Taiwan inspires interest from across greater China. Ben Jung, a 51-year-old administrator from Hong Kong, flew to Taiwan to bear witness. “Hong Kong has been kowtowing to Beijing for a long time,” he said, “but in Taiwan, both parties seek bargaining chips through negotiation.” On election day, he toured central Taipei, talking to people and taking pictures of polling stations and asking about the logistics of a successful poll. What he finds most moving is the way the people shape the political process. “If you want to govern this place, you must do two things: listen and compromise.”

The victor, Ma, will need to do both. Though voters have rewarded him for rapprochement, every interaction with the mainland will be scrutinized by people worried about losing the island’s de facto sovereignty. He will also need to convince voters that he is listening to their concerns about cost-of-living issues and equality. At a rally in Taipei, Wu Po-hsiung, honorary chairman of the KMT seemed to strike a conciliatory tone: “The Taiwanese people can now be at ease, and we hope that cross-strait peace won’t regress,” he said. “The biggest challenge for the next four years will still be the economy.” Bringing Tsai and her supporters into the fold won’t be easy and may require some compromise. But this is Taiwan, and that’s what democracy is all about.

Emily Rauhala is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME