Overseas Taiwanese Return Home to Vote

An estimated 250,000 Taiwanese expatriates returned to Taiwan, Saturday, to choose their next president.

Nationalist (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former mayor of Taipei, handily defeated Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Frank Chang-ting Hsieh by approximately 17 percent.

Unlike the United States, Taiwan does not permit absentee voting. All votes must be cast inside the country. To participate in the elections, voters must be at least 20 years old and hold a Taiwan passport.

The flood of overseas Taiwanese back to the island is a tradition that was first popularized in 1996 for Taiwan's first democratic presidential election.

Overseas Taiwanese voters are known to be an important and boisterous voice for Taiwan.

Kuo Yun-Kuang, head of the KMT's Department of Overseas Affairs, estimated that as many as 50,000 pro-Ma Taiwanese returned to the country from the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan to vote. He said that many more who live in mainland China also came home to the island nation for the election.

Other estimates of the number of expatriates who made the trip back to their homeland for the election are much higher.

DPP officials expected a similar number of overseas voters to support Hsieh. Officials from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area of California estimated about 5,000 Taiwanese traveled from each metropolis.

Ma's daughters, Ma Wei-chung and Ma Yuan-chung, were among the thousands of overseas Taiwanese voters to return from the United States.

From Australia to Los Angeles, Voters Flood Back

Many overseas voters made plans well in advance to cast their vote in Taiwan. Travel agencies around the world took advantage of this tradition and offered "democracy seats" direct to Taipei.

Taiwan's China Airlines -- not to be confused with Beijing's Air China -- posted special round-trip tickets for $888, a play on the lucky nature of the number eight.

Mobilizing large groups from the United States and elsewhere, overseas voters hoped to make a splash in the presidential contest.

Alan Sun, the chairman of the returning Taiwanese of the U.S.-Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Support Organization, organized a group from Los Angeles to support Ma.

His 24-year-old daughter arrived the day of the election to vote in her first Taiwanese election. He estimated that 5,000 Taiwanese-Americans from Los Angeles had returned for this election.

Merlin Yang, a self-described housewife from Los Angeles, was an energetic Hsieh supporter.

"I personally knew of 300 others who came to Taiwan to vote for Hsieh," Yang said.

Taiwan's future relationship with China was one of the most discussed issues this election cycle.

During the campaign, Ma advocated for closer economic ties with China and expanded direct air links to the mainland.

Hsieh, known as the moderate pro-independence candidate, also favored better trade relations with China, though he proposed a more gradual change in relations between the two countries.

He attempted to distance himself from the current president, Chen Shui-bian, a DPP member who has been mired in corruption scandals and plagued by a slowing economy.

Yang came back for her third presidential election "because the DPP has already won [the last two presidential elections]. But this time Taiwan could become part of China. I'm afraid of this and I've come back to vote."

Jenny Chang, from the U.S.-Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Support Organization in Los Angeles, was equally passionate about her candidate.

"Ma Ying-jeou can save the country," she said.

Young Overseas Voters Join In

Many young voters also felt compelled by election issues to return to Taiwan to cast their vote.

Lily Wang, a 26-year-old doctor from Sydney, Australia, who left Taiwan when she was 12, returned to vote for the first time.

An enthusiastic Hsieh supporter, Wang said she came back to her birthplace "because it very important that everyone knows about Taiwan."

As a health-care professional, Wang also supported the referendums for Taiwan to join the United Nations and World Health Organization. Both of those measures failed, however.

Steven Lin, 27, left Taiwan when he was 16 and always wanted to vote in Taiwan. Now an undergraduate student at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, Lin flew in to support Ma.

"Taiwan needs change," Lin said. "The past eight years, Taiwan has gone down economically; GDP has fallen. It is important that we pick the right person. We need a true leader to save Taiwan."

As a citizen of the United States and Taiwan, Lin is eligible to vote in both countries' presidential elections. He has not yet decided whom he will support in the U.S. election, but he said he appreciates the democratic process.

"I love America and I love Taiwan as well," Lin said.