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Relief in China and US as the voters give another term to president who negotiated closer ties with Beijing's regime
Supporters of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou cheer on as they watch the vote counting on Saturday. Photograph: Wally Santana/AP
The rain that swept the city streets, blurring lights and muffling the blare of klaxons, perhaps helped to dampen passions. Outside the Kuomintang's Taipei headquarters, the victors smiled under thin plastic hoods, cheering in relief as much as in celebration. Across town, the defeated opposition's supporters seemed subdued.
Taiwanese politics are vibrant, emotional, sometimes dirty and occasionally violent. Some might have expected stronger reactions after a race too close to call culminated in yesterday's re-election of incumbent Ma Ying-jeou, who has overseen an unprecedented rapprochement with China.
But the muted response to his victory – he took 51.6% of the vote to challenger Tsai Ing-wen's 45.6% – echoed an unusually calm campaign. Some observers think this youthful democracy's fifth presidential election offers hope that its politics are evolving from what one voter described as "two parties shouting at each other".
The improved performance by the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) also indicates that voters will continue to have an alternative to the Kuomintang. Some had feared the party was sliding to oblivion after its disastrous performance in 2008. Ma saw off an impressive campaign by the DPP's Tsai, who would have been the first female president. "This is not my personal victory; this victory belongs to the Taiwanese people," the 61-year-old told supporters.
Tsai stepped down as DPP leader as she conceded defeat. A third candidate, James Soong of the People First party, polled just 2.8% of the vote.
The result was a relief for Beijing, displeased by the re-emergence of the pro-independence DPP, despite Tsai's care in moderating the party's rhetoric. The election was watched closely in Washington, amid fears of potential instability.
"Beijing, Washington and even Australia will all breathe better with a Ma victory," Bruce Jacobs, a China expert at Monash University in Australia, told the Associated Press.
Beijing claims sovereignty over the self-governed island and has refused to rule out military action if Taiwan declares formal independence. But hostility has softened under Ma, under whose regime the two sides have struck an important economic deal and established the first direct air, postal and shipping links since the defeated Kuomintang retreated across the strait after losing the Chinese civil war six decades ago.
While polls had shown Tsai edging towards her rival at one point, the scale of the victory gave Ma an unequivocal mandate, said Jonathan Sullivan, an expert on Taiwan at Nottingham University. "Ma was very clear about what he was offering ... if people didn't want that they had the opportunity to say so."
The Kuomintang campaign suggested voters faced a choice between the benefits of the closer economic ties he has forged and uncertainty under Tsai. Meanwhile, the DPP accused Ma of failing ordinary voters and pledged to improve the lives of workers.
It is not hard to find diehard supporters on either side who accuse the Kuomintang of selling out Taiwan or the DPP of being dangerous firebrands.
But one DPP activist sought to put the contest into a broader perspective. "If we win or lose – to me, even getting here today is a remarkable achievement," said Chiu Chui-chen, hours before polls opened. Chiu, 61, spent five years in prison during the 1980s due to his pro-democracy activities. Back then, he had struggled to imagine voting. That Taiwan did not see presidential elections until 1996, and elected its first non-Kuomintang leader four years later, helps explain why politics is a passion here.
The closing rallies on Friday night epitomised the carnival spirit, with tens of thousands packing each venue. Their roars of approval rivalled the volume of bullhorns and vuvuzelas as they waved flags and cheered their candidates on. Outside the Bancai sports stadium, where Tsai held her final event, vendors did a brisk trade in T-shirts, dolls and other campaign paraphenalia.
Hours later, voters clambered onto buses and trains, travelling hours across the island to reach their registered polling station. Around 200,000 returned from overseas to cast their vote.
Across the Taiwan strait, where the Chinese Communist party has limited coverage of the contest, at least some Chinese citizens were watching. The popular Sina Weibo microblog service even posted an election counter. "Saw Taiwan election on Weibo. I hope China can have elections too. But the country's situation doesn't allow that," wrote one user.
In Taipei, Chinese tour groups said they had been told to stay away from campaigning and some had even been told to stay inside on polling day. "[China's leaders] don't want a lot of mainlanders coming here and watching democracy in action," said Stanley Rosen of the University of Southern California, who was in Taiwan to watch the election. "They like to show the legislature and people fighting each other... [It's the idea that] democracy is inherently unstable."
Taiwan's electoral history is certainly troubled. In the most notorious incident, DPP incumbent Chen Shui-bian was shot on the eve of the 2004 poll. The incident remains controversial, not least because of its impact on the next day's vote, which he won by just 0.2%; opponents claimed he had staged it.
This race has seen allegations – denied by Ma – that intelligence services spied on Tsai for the Kuomintang's political benefit. That resonated because of the party's authoritarian history. Meanwhile, Tsai denied Kuomintang claims that she had benefited inappropriately from a role in a state-backed business.
But Kevin Hsu, the 24-year-old policy director of the First Voters group – a body encouraging political participation by the young – said that overall the campaign had benefited Taiwanese democracy.
"Compared with the [previous] elections, it's been peaceful and reasonable. We haven't had unrest. We haven't had bullets. Our democracy is young, but it's a learning process every four years."
Yu Chen-hua, of the election study centre at National Chengchi University, noted that there had not been "much passion" in the race. Tsai had reached out to voters with a more rational tone than predecessors, who had tended to use strong rhetoric to consolidate support, he said.
"There were doubts in the DPP about whether Tsai had the right kind of personality because she is very much like a university professor, rather than a street fighter," said Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics. But her "academic, pragmatic style" had turned out to be a real asset for the DPP, he added. He suggested she had alienated voters by returning to old-school street campaigning tactics in the last week. Even so, she restored her party's credibility after the last election, when Ma crushed Frank Hsieh with 58% of the vote to 42% .
"It has shown the two-party system is strong. In 2008, there were real fears that the DPP was finished," said Hughes.
The Kuomintang has a reduced majority thanks to the simultaneous legislative election, although it still boasts 64 seats to the DPP's 40. Smaller parties claimed nine places. About 80% of Taiwan's 18 million voters are thought to have cast a ballot on Saturday, a somewhat higher turnout than in 2008.
"My generation is not as aggressive [about politics] as the people you always see on TV. People have got more rational," said Joseph Chiu, a 30-year-old salesman. "But it's not that they are less passionate or that they are indifferent. They have just learned to respect each other."