Taiwan's opposition candidate cruised to victory in the presidential election Saturday, promising to expand economic ties with China while protecting the island from being swallowed up politically by its giant communist neighbor.

Fireworks lit up the sky over Ma Ying-jeou's headquarters and cheering supporters put up victory posters as they waited for Ma — a former Taipei mayor — to give a speech. Across town, some wept in a crowd that gathered at the campaign office for ruling party candidate Frank Hsieh, a former premier.

Ma of the Nationalist Party won 58 percent of the votes, giving him a 17 percentage-point lead over his challenger, who won 41.5 percent of the ballots according to the preliminary count by the Central Election Commission.

Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, conceded and Ma declared victory Saturday evening.

Ma and Hsieh have both said they want a less confrontational relationship with China. But they were divided on how best to deal with Beijing, which presents both a huge opportunity for the island's powerful business community and a looming threat to its evolving democracy.

Taiwan and the mainland split amid civil war in 1949, but China still considers the island to be part of its territory. Beijing has threatened to attack if Taiwan rejects unification and seeks a permanent break.

Taiwanese also voted on two referendums calling on the government to work for the island's entry into the United Nations. The measures, which did not generate much excitement, failed to pass because fewer than 6 million people voted yes — far short of the number required by law.

Ma based his campaign on promises to reverse the pro-independence direction of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian and leverage China's white-hot economic boom to re-energize Taiwan's ailing high-tech economy.

He has proposed a formal peace treaty with Beijing that would demilitarize the Taiwan Strait, the 160-kilometer-wide (100-mile-wide) waterway that separates the two heavily armed sides. But he has drawn the line at unification, promising it would not be discussed during his presidency.

Economically, he wants to lower barriers to Taiwanese investment on the mainland — it already amounts to more than US$100 billion (euro65 billion) — and to begin direct air and maritime links between the sides.

Ma is particularly interested in expanding the China-Taiwan high-tech connection, which every year sends billions of dollars' worth of Taiwan's advanced components to low-cost assembly plants along China's rapidly developing east coast.

That interest resonated with businessman Wang Wen-ho, who cast his ballot for Ma at a Taipei high school.

"The DPP has failed to cope with China's growth in eight years," he said. "We need to engage the mainland to improve the economy."

Hsieh accepted his party's independence platform, but without the special vehemence of Chen, whose support for separatist policies constantly incensed China and caused grave concern in the United States, Taiwan's most important foreign partner.

Hsieh warned voters that if he loses, Ma's party will control both the presidency and the legislature, creating a dangerous imbalance of power.

Taipei voter Chen Wei-ting, a 32-year-old banker, shared the same concern and voted for Hsieh. "I'm worried that if one party had the legislature and presidency, there could be a lot of trouble."

But the man's wife, Chen Chia-chia, a 25-year-old businesswoman, said she supported Ma. "The Nationalist Party did a good job when they were in power before," she said, "so I think everything will be OK."