Ma Ying-jeou's four years as President of Taiwan have been the calmest the island has seen in its awkward existence as the "other" China. After more than six decades of hostility, he and Chinese President Hu Jintao have brought détente to the Taiwan Strait, along with a flood of new trade and tourists.
More than two million mainland Chinese arrived here last year, visiting long-forbidden sights such as the memorial to Taiwan's founder, Chiang Kai-shek, and snapping up sales at the iconic Taipei 101 shopping tower. The money spent by mainlanders helped Taiwan rebound from the 2008 economic crisis. But will the cash stop flowing if Taiwanese signal they still see themselves as a sovereign entity?
That's the question at the centre of a hotly disputed election Saturday that will either give Mr. Ma and his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party another term to pursue what he calls "normalization" with the mainland – or see Taiwan's 23 million people take a long step away from the People's Republic, and perhaps back toward the old showdown with Beijing.
Mr. Ma and his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, were locked in a virtual tie in the last published polls. The votes of a few thousand Taiwanese could well decide whether it's four more years of rapprochement, or a new era of tension across the Strait. The situation is so rare that it has brought rivals Beijing and Washington – which is committed to the military defence of Taiwan – to the same side, pulling for Mr. Ma and stability.
The election has been calm by Taiwanese standards, but the stakes remain unmistakably high. A faceoff between China and a DPP government would complicate a regional picture already coloured by the death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and the ascendance of reform movements across Southeast Asia that have brought the rivalry between China and the United States into sharper detail.
"The outcome of this election will have an impact on China-Taiwan relations. For the past four years, we have eased the tension," Mr. Ma said in a news conference Thursday at his party's headquarters in Taipei. "You don't want to provoke China like the previous administration [which was headed by the DPP] did for eight years. That will not bring any good to Taiwan."
The implication – that if Ms. Tsai wins the vote, all bets are off – was reinforced by an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper closely affiliated with the Communist Party leadership. "Ma is likely to be the winner, but if the DPP were nonetheless to manage a return to power, a long hangover would follow," it read.
The progress made under Mr. Ma's leadership has been swift and unexpected. After his election in 2008, he accepted a long-standing proposal from the Communist leadership to restore the so-called "Three Links" – air, shipping and mail – between the two sides. There are now hundreds of direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland.
More controversial, Mr. Ma's government in 2010 signed the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement – a preferential trade deal better known as ECFA – that has contributed to a dramatic increase in cross-strait trade. Critics, however, say Taiwan (which has full diplomatic relations with just 22 states, plus the Vatican) has been made more reliant than ever on its long-time enemy.
When Taiwan was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, many here blamed the changing relationship with the mainland for the struggles of their own economy.
"ECFA and the Three Links just help businesses transfer money and jobs to China while the number of jobless in Taiwan increases," said Tsai Guangming, a 50-year-old labourer who lost his job at a machine parts factory when the company shuttered its Taiwan operations and moved to the mainland. He was waiting Thursday by an intersection in the northwestern city of Pingzhen for the chance to cheer Ms. Tsai as she drove through to shake hands with supporters.
"If Ma is re-elected, Taiwan will become Chinese. There will be no more Taiwanese," Mr. Tsai said, his voice rising to an angry shout.
Pollsters say that while many Taiwanese appreciate the calm Mr. Ma has brought to the relationship with Beijing, he's on shakier ground on the economic front. While Taiwan rebounded quickly from the last crisis to post strong growth in 2010 and 2011, the macroeconomic figures mask a widening income gap and an unemployment rate that remains higher than it was when he took office four years ago.
Ms. Tsai – who hopes to become Taiwan's first female president – has tried to seize on that by making the economy the main focus of her campaign. She's been aided by the entry of a third candidate, long-time KMT figure James Song, who is expected to finish a distant third but pull some votes away from Mr. Ma.
Mr. Ma is in a precarious position partly because of an error early in the campaign, when he mused about the possibility of a full-on peace treaty with Beijing some time in the next decade. It's a position he has back-pedalled away from, promising to hold a referendum before entering any political negotiations with Beijing. But it has already mobilized opponents who fear he intends to cut a grand bargain with Beijing that will forever kill the idea of Taiwan independence.
"It's very obvious that [Mr. Ma's mention of] the peace agreement has backfired among the public in Taiwan," said Tung Chen-yuan, director of the Centre for Prediction Markets at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
The Centre for Prediction Markets website, which tracks voter sentiment, had Mr. Ma leading comfortably until he raised the idea of a peace settlement. "Very few people believe Mainland China would make significant concessions to Taiwan on the sovereignty issue," Prof. Tung said. The centre's numbers now suggest an upset win for Ms. Tsai on Saturday.
Most other polls (which are notoriously partisan and unreliable here) have Mr. Ma eking out a narrow victory. His supporters say they're tired of being left to the margins of the international community, and appreciate his efforts to bring an end to Taiwan's isolation.
"Taiwan was an enclosed society before Mr. Ma began interacting with Beijing," said Li Meiping, a 58-year-old retired schoolteacher who attended a KMT rally Thursday in New Taipei City, on the outskirts of the capital. The direct air links established by Mr. Ma's government mean it's easier for Ms. Li to visit her relatives in China's Jiangsu province, where her father, a KMT soldier in the civil war, lived before fleeing to Taiwan in 1949.
"We are one family. I want to see reunification with the mainland, but not quickly. It has to be step-by-step."