By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party's(KMT) presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, has won more thanhalf the vote in Saturday's election, the party said, sparkingfirecracker celebrations even before any official announcement.
Ma had won more than 7 million votes, the party said, morethan half the total 13 million people who cast their ballot,auguring improved ties with diplomatic rival China.
The Central Election Commission said that Ma had 58 percentof the vote, while the ruling Democratic Progressive Party'scandidate Frank Hsieh had 42 percent, with counting almostcomplete.
Though the Nationalists' own announced vote count showed avictory, the party had yet to make a formal announcement.
Party supporters let of firecrackers and fireworks, whileDPP supporters shed tears.
Saturday's win comes after the Nationalists clinched a morethan two-thirds majority in legislative elections in January,giving them a clear mandate to push ahead with their policiesto boost an economy which has lagged some of its Asian peers.
Ma favours closer economic ties and political dialogue withChina, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has neverrenounced the use of force to bring the island under itscontrol.
Voters had to choose a successor to President ChenShui-bian, an anti-China firebrand who steps down in May andwho has repeatedly angered Beijing with his pro-independencerhetoric.
China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan as its territory sincethe end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
Hsieh's DPP favours formal independence while Ma'sNationalist Party wants eventual reunification once Chinaembraces democracy.
"Whether you vote for Hsieh or for Ma, be sure to vote forTaiwan," Chen told reporters. "...Don't let Taiwan become thenext Hong Kong. Don't let Taiwan become the next Tibet."
The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chineserule in 1997. Chinese troops marched into Tibet, the scene ofanti-Chinese rioting last week, in 1950.
Ma told reporters after voting his commitment to Taiwan wasnot in doubt.
"I have always said that if I get elected I will engagewith mainland China on many issues, that I will protect Taiwan,not just its identity but its security, to my fulleststrength," he said in fluent English.
"I have said also many times that Taiwan is not Tibet.Neither is it Hong Kong. So we will keep this democraticcountry running as it is."
The election has drawn keen international attention, withthe United States, Russia and Britain criticising a referendumon U.N. membership, to be held alongside the vote, which theybelieve could upset the delicate balance with China.
Malaysia added its voice of opposition on Saturday, withits Foreign Ministry saying the referendum as "a provocativemove".
Whatever the referendum result, U.N. membership is out ofthe question with just 23 countries recognising Taiwan, andwith China a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N.Security Council.
The United States switched diplomatic recognition fromTaiwan to China in 1979, recognising "one China", but remainsthe island's biggest ally.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers are in the region for trainingexercises. China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996,trying to intimidate voters during an election.
The two candidates had toughened their stances on Chinafollowing Beijing's crackdown in Tibet, but to help theeconomy, both advocate more direct flights, tourism andinvestment opportunities between Taiwan and China.
Ma advocates a common market with China.
(Additional reporting by Taipei bureau, and Jalil Hamid inKuala Lumpur; Editing by Nick Macfie)