TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan's president officially tossed his hat in the ring for a second four-year term Saturday, hoping a record of strong economic recovery and markedly improved ties with rival China will lead him to victory early next year.
After registering his candidacy with the ruling Nationalist Party, President Ma Ying-jeou said his government has "led our nation on a course of peace, prosperity and security," noting that Taiwan's 10.8 percent economic growth last year was its best in a decade.
Ma has no challengers within his party and will automatically become the Nationalists' candidate in general elections slated for next January.
He will face either Tsai Ing-wen or Su Tseng-chang of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which will choose its own candidate in an island-wide public opinion survey early next month. Tsai, the party chairwoman, appears to be the favorite.
Ma appears likely to carry an edge into the general election. He has gained popularity with moderate voters through his signature policy of expanding economic ties with China, from which Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. The policy has helped reduce tensions across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait to their lowest level in six decades and has put the DPP — until recently a fervent backer of formal Taiwanese independence — slightly on the defensive.
Still, Ma's path to victory could be strewn with pitfalls. Despite the improved economy, public unhappiness has grown over government inefficiency and a widening wealth gap between rich and poor — a post-World War II first for a society that has long prided itself on its relative economic equality.
And Ma's somewhat dour and undemonstrative personality has failed to ignite real enthusiasm about his leadership, with opinion polls showing that only about 30 percent of voters approve of his performance. A stumble like the one that occurred two years ago when the government bungled its response to a devastating typhoon could give the DPP a major opening and put it over the top.
China could play a key role in the race. Beijing favors Ma, and will do what it can to help his candidacy. Moves such as removing some of the 1,500 missiles China has aimed at Taiwanese targets would probably please the electorate, which remains very leery of Chinese intentions — and of China's determination to bring the island back into its fold — 61 years after their civil war split.