TAIPEI (Reuters) - Born in Hong Kong to parents from the Chinese mainland and now president of Taiwan for a second four-year term, Ma Ying-jeou looks to have found a winning formula in closer economic relations with Beijing while maintaining a political status quo.
The Nationalist Party incumbent won Saturday’s presidential election with about 51.6 percent of the votes, while his main opponent, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), got about 45.6 percent. A third candidate got 2.8 percent.
Ma’s victory was however narrower than the nearly 17-point margin he had over the DPP four years ago, eroded by a rising wealth gap and higher costs of living while he pursued closer business ties with China for Taiwan’s hugely export-dependent economy.
Politically, the 61-year-old swears by a “three no‘s” policy -- no declaration of independence from China, no unification with China, and no use of force to resolve differences across the Strait.
After winning the presidency in 2008, his policy served to defuse the tensions between Taipei and Beijing that marked the turbulent eight years of his independence-minded predecessor, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP.
Ma, who holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School, reached a milestone in his pro-China policy last year with the signing of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) trade deal with Beijing that cut import tariffs on about 800 items. He also has forged new tourism, business and travel links with the mainland.
He focused his campaign on preserving this status quo of stability in China relations and economic rapprochement, but faced a tough fight. Tsai had attacked Ma’s economic record, striking a chord with ordinary Taiwanese wrestling with rising living costs, stagnant wages and unaffordable housing.
For his second term, Ma has showcased a coming “10 golden years” of peace and prosperity for all in Taiwan, a goal he said only he could achieve because of his policy of stable relations with China.
Ma’s parents brought him to Taiwan when he was one year old, but he has been defensive about his birthplace after being attacked in his first campaign for president by opponents who questioned his loyalty.
“I grew up eating Taiwanese rice and drinking Taiwanese water. I will spend the rest of my life in Taiwan after completing my second term,” Ma said in his last campaign rally earlier this week.
“Since taking office three years ago, I’ve been trying to create better opportunities for Taiwanese and earn international recognition for Taiwan. And this is my Taiwan dream,” he said.
He has also repeatedly rejected accusations that his policy of detente with China is handing Beijing a chance to achieve its goal of recovering Taiwan, which has been self-governing since the Nationalists retreated there after losing control of the mainland to Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949.
Ma holds a masters degree in law from New York University in addition to the doctorate from Harvard, where he specialized in the law of the sea and international economic law.
His political career began as an English interpreter for former president Chiang Ching-kuo -- son of Taiwan’s postwar strongman ruler Chiang Kai-shek. He was also a legislator, minister of justice and mayor of the capital Taipei before becoming chairman of the Nationalists in 2005.
Accused of corruption while mayor, he resigned to fight the charges and was acquitted.
The telegenic Ma is married to a former banking lawyer and the couple have two adult daughters. He is an avid jogger, swimmer and cyclist.
Ma’s greatest critic may be at home. His wife once told a TV audience during the 2008 presidential campaign that “whatever weak points husbands have, he has them all.”
More recently she was seen on island-wide TV scolding him for accepting a bottle of water after a speech when he already had one by his seat.
Ma, who handed back the extra bottle, later remarked that it would have been “inappropriate” to contradict his wife.
Editing by Brian Rhoads