TAIPEI -- Rejecting threats from China, Taiwanese voters swept pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian into the presidency yesterday, breaking the Nationalist Party's half-century grip on power here and setting the stage for a possible showdown with Beijing.
The victory of Chen's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over the Nationalists, or Kuomintang, completed one of Asia's great success stories of the past two decades: Taiwan's transition from an authoritarian nation to a genuine democracy.
It also served as a sharp rebuke to the leadership in Beijing, which had warned that a vote for Chen -- whose party platform supports Taiwan independence -- could lead to military action.
China has viewed the island as a wayward province since Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek arrived here in defeat five decades ago at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Beijing vowed to take Taiwan back by force if required.
In victory, Chen congratulated voters for resisting China's strong-arm tactics while making overtures to the Communist Party leaders who have so violently opposed him.
"This is a historical moment for Taiwan, because the courageous Taiwanese people have used love and hope to overcome darkness and fear," said Chen, a 49-year-old former Taipei mayor whose speech was notable for its statesmanship. "In the future, we will use the most positive and friendly gestures to build a constructive dialogue with mainland China."
Beijing reacted cautiously last night as leaders there tried to figure out how to respond to Chen's victory and what to make of his conciliatory remarks.
"The election of a new leader in Taiwan cannot change the fact that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory," the state-run New China News Service said last night, quoting government sources in Beijing. "We should listen to what the new leader in Taiwan says and watch what he does."
Some mainland analysts expressed hope yesterday that Chen and China might establish some kind of dialogue despite the political chasm between them.
"I don't think they will go to extremes immediately," said Xiong Zhiyong, a professor at Beijing's Foreign Affairs College, referring to government leaders. "There is a possibility for both sides to find some common ground."
Xiong's comments contrast in tone with the threatening statements made by Premier Zhu Rongji last week, who warned that China was prepared to "shed blood" to prevent Taiwan independence. His words, however, are consistent with those by other Chinese scholars close to the regime who have suggested in recent weeks that the mainland is looking for a way back to the negotiating table.
Relations between China and Taiwan collapsed last summer when incumbent President Lee Teng-hui scrapped the "One China" policy, which has kept peace across the Taiwan Strait for five decades. Lee said the two sides had "special state-to-state relations," effectively dumping the idea that Taipei and Beijing were part of one China -- a fiction that appeased the mainland.
Enraged, Communist Party leaders saw Lee's comments as a further sign of drift toward independence and threatened attack.
Chen has supported Lee's policy, which could make it tough for China to resume cross-strait talks. But in an attempt to calm the concerns of voters, Chen had pledged during the campaign not to declare independence if elected. And he said he would only call for a referendum on the issue if Beijing tried to invade.
In the final tally last night, Chen won the three-way presidential race with 39 percent of the vote. Independent candidate James Soong took about 37 percent, while Vice President Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party finished with a humbling 23 percent.
The race, which polls showed in a dead heat 10 days ago, attracted 83 percent turnout from Taiwan's 15.5 million registered voters. Chen owed much of his victory to Soong, a former Nationalist leader who split his party by launching a maverick bid in August.
In voting for Chen, Taiwanese seemed to place the need for political change and government reform above concerns for stable relations with the mainland. In interviews last week, people across the country complained bitterly about the Nationalists' inability to rein in rampant corruption.
"Taiwan has been ruled by the Nationalists for such a long time," said Liu Cheng-chi, a 37-year-old mother from Taipei County, after casting her ballot for Chen yesterday morning. "If the Nationalists are still in power, there is no way you can reform the system."
Many also credited Chen's victory to a last-minute endorsement by a highly influential Nobel laureate, Lee Yuan-tseh, who resigned his job as director of the nation's top research institution, Academia Sinica, and threw his support behind Chen.
Despite a historic victory, Taiwan's president-elect faces a challenging future.