TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Incumbent Ma Ying-jeou held a strong lead in Taiwan's presidential election Saturday, as voters appeared drawn to his vision of better relations with China over his main challenger's attempts to galvanize resentment over growing income inequality.
With about half of the votes counted, Ma had 52.3 percent of the vote, with Tsai Ying-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party at 44.9 percent, according to ETTV and other television stations.
A third candidate, James Soong, a former heavyweight in Ma's Nationalist Party, had just 2.9 percent of the vote.
Ma, a 61-year-old former justice minister and mayor of the capital, Taipei, has staked his re-election on his success in tying Taiwan's high-tech economy ever closer to China's lucrative markets, while Tsai has attempted to galvanize resentment over growing income inequality.
Tsai, 55, who has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, shows no signs that she would undo the economic aspects of Ma's China policies, though she charges that they have helped spawn economic inequality in Taiwan. She has also accused Ma of undermining Taiwan's de facto independence in exchange for benefits from the mainland — a claim that resonates strongly with her party's pro-independence base.
While Tsai says she wants to continue economic cooperation with China, a win for her would put Beijing in the uncomfortable position of maintaining such ties while still registering its displeasure with the DPP's pro-independence stance.
Eighteen million Taiwanese were eligible to vote in Saturday's polls, and about 80 percent of them were believed to have voted. The polls closed Saturday afternoon and results were expected that night.
Legislative elections being held at the same time are likely to see Ma's Nationalists retain a majority in the 113-seat house, although with a diminished margin.
Ma and Tsai have been crisscrossing the island for weeks in a hard-hitting campaign, offering their competing visions for Taiwan's future.
Ma's signature achievement has been the completion of a China trade deal in June 2010 that lowered tariffs on hundreds of goods. While most of Taiwan's $124 billion worth of exports to China last year were electronic goods such as television displays and cellphone chips, there was also a big upsurge in agricultural sales from southern Taiwan, long a stronghold of Tsai's party.
Taipei bank manager Frank Chang said he voted for Ma because of his efforts to improve ties with Beijing.
"China is a major economic power with the world's biggest demand for goods," he said. "As a small island, Taiwan cannot isolate itself from the mainland and still maintain a viable economy."
Taiwan, one of Asia's economic successes for decades and now a center of high-tech development, has turned in a mixed performance under Ma. Unemployment has fallen in the past two years after reaching a high of 6.16 percent in 2009, and preliminary growth figures for 2011 were a respectable 4.5 percent. But housing prices in urban areas have skyrocketed and the income gap has widened, as large companies that invested in the China trade have profited handsomely from new opportunities.
Taipei office worker Chen Yen-fen said she voted for Tsai because she appeared to be a capable leader.
"A change of government will help resolve the widening gap between the rich and poor and many other problems," she said.
In the closing days of the campaign Tsai moved toward the center, promising to open a channel to China to offer assurances that she has no intention of embracing the pro-independence policies of Ma's predecessor, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian. Chen's policies infuriated Beijing, and caused great consternation in the U.S., Taiwan's most important security partner.
Ma has been buoyed by the arrival of an estimated 300,000 China-based Taiwanese businesspeople, most of whom are expected to vote for the president. Many Taiwanese businesses on the mainland are big Ma backers and have encouraged their workers to support him.