By Ralph Jennings
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's main opposition NationalistParty declared victory in presidential elections on Saturday,heralding improved ties with giant neighbour China which claimsthe self-ruled island as its own.
Nationalist, or Kuomintang (KMT), candidate Ma Ying-jeouhad won more than 7 million votes, the party said, more thanhalf the total 13 million people who cast their ballot.
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.
"This has brought us a different tomorrow. The electionresult has really given us a new environment, new hope and anew future," the party's honorary chairman, Lien Chan, told acheering crowd in downtown Taipei.
Party supporters let of firecrackers and fireworks, whileDPP supporters shed tears.
Saturday's win comes after the Nationalists, who once ruledall China, clinched a more than two-thirds majority inlegislative elections in January, giving them a clear mandateto push ahead with their policies to boost an economy which haslagged 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.
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.
The result from the referendum is expected to be announcedlater in the evening.
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, under a "one China" policy, butremains the island's main arms supplier and trading partner.Taiwan styles itself as the "Republic of China".
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)