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After repeated clashes with China, Taiwanese voters look for a quiet spell
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    TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ma Ying-jeou isn’t a charismatic figure. He calms rather than inspires. He’s a soft spoken administrator who promises to govern by consultation.
    And he’s just what many Taiwanese seem to want in a new president after eight years of tempestuous domestic politics and butting heads with China on the international front.
    If he wins Saturday’s election, there’s sure to be a sigh of relief in Washington, which usually finds itself caught in the crossfire whenever tensions flare between China and Taiwan. Ma is promising to improve relations with China and stop pushing independence for Taiwan — something China angrily rejects, claiming the island as its own province.
    Ma is the front-runner, but his 20-point lead in opinion polls has dropped into single digits as opponent Frank Hsieh mounts a fierce final-stage rally. However, Hsieh also seems to be promising to tone down the China rhetoric.
    There have been tensions aplenty during outgoing President Chen Shui-bian’s two terms, chiefly over his push for Taiwanese independence. Ma says he will ‘‘minimize threats and maximize opportunities’’ in his dealings with Beijing.
    Just as important to many voters, he says he’ll get Taiwan’s once vibrant high-tech economy out of the doldrums. He advocates wedding Taiwan’s high-tech expertise with China’s white-hot economic boom to restore the island of 23 million people to its former place as one of Asia’s four economic tigers, together with Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.
    Independence is anathema to some leaders in his Nationalist Party who favor reunification with China. Ma has made it clear, though, that he is not willing to discuss eventual union with Beijing.
    Rival Hsieh, representing Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, says Ma lacks the toughness to confront China.
    The party accuses Ma of repeatedly buckling under pressure from his own party. For example, it says, he approved a newspaper advertisement in 2006 acknowledging that Taiwanese independence was a legitimate — albeit impractical — option, only to back off that position within a week.
    Ma has another weapon in his armory — a Mr. Clean reputation.
    After Chen’s bare-knuckled and allegedly corrupt rule, 57-year-old Ma, who has a doctorate in law from Harvard, is presenting himself as an exemplar of integrity with a track record of fighting corruption even in his own party.
    ‘‘He is an honest, upright man, and we need a change after eight years of bad government,’’ said Katherine Huang, a 49-year-old marketing manager in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.
    Taiwan, 100 miles off China’s east coast, split from the mainland in 1949 but it has never declared itself a separate nation. Chen never sought any declaration of outright independence, but he tried various ways of asserting a separate Taiwanese identity, and pushed for Taiwan’s admission to the United Nations — policies all guaranteed to annoy Beijing’s communist masters.
    He restricted Taiwanese investment in China to try to reduce the island’s dependence on its huge neighbor, a step that would likely be reversed under a Ma presidency.
    The question on many Taiwanese minds is whether Ma has the backbone to stand up to China, to conservatives in his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, and to the pressures for independence from Chen’s party.
    ‘‘Ma would want to usher in an era of dialogue with China,’’ said Yang Kai-huang, a political scientist at Hualien’s National Dong Hwa University. ‘‘But if he should face mounting internal opposition ... I’m afraid he might back off.’’
    Ma, a jogger and sometime triathlete, is the son of a midlevel Nationalist official and was groomed for government from an early age. He has served as justice minister and as mayor of Taipei.
    Another political scientist, Chang Ling-cheng of Taipei’s National Taiwan University, says Ma has proved himself as an administrator, but may have problems coping in a democracy that often descends into brawling on the floor of Parliament.
    He ‘‘can govern an already well-managed state, not one at times of disorder or anarchy,’’ Chang said.
    Ma insists he’s ready for the top job.
    ‘‘I am by no means an indecisive person,’’ he wrote in ‘‘Governance,’’ a book on his presidential plans. ‘‘But I will consult with more people to avoid acting in a precarious or arbitrary way.’’
    As justice minister under Nationalist President Lee Teng-hui in 1993-96 he was regarded as Taiwan’s chief corruption-buster, so much so that he was transferred to another post after party officials objected to his targeting some of their candidates in a campaign against vote-buying.
    He was elected Taipei mayor in 1998.
    He opposed his own party’s leaders when they urged supporters to protest alleged vote fraud after Chen narrowly won re-election in 2004. In 2005, Nationalist Party members selected him as their chairman, positioning him as their 2008 presidential candidate.
    Hsieh, a former prime minister under Chen, has a razor-sharp wit and an ability to connect with voters. He accepts Chen’s pro-independence policies in principle, but without the vehement enthusiasm of the outgoing leader.
    And instead of supporting Chen’s line of restricting Taiwan’s robust economic investment in China, he wants to remove the restrictions and step up the frequency of charter flights between the two sides.

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