The mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou, was elected chairman of Taiwan's Nationalist Party on Saturday, setting him up as a likely candidate for the next presidential election.

Ma, a 56-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, replaced Lien Chan, who had stepped down, but not before securing a place in history in May by visiting mainland China. He was the first Nationalist leader to do so since 1949, when Communist forces defeated Chiang Kai-Shek, then the Nationalist leader, and forced him to seek refuge on Taiwan.

Ma defeated Wang Jin-ping, the legislative speaker, by a margin of more than 2 to 1 in the party's first such leadership election. In a victory speech, he vowed to reform the party to improve its chances of defeating President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party in the 2008 presidential election.

Although Lien's trip broke new ground, the Nationalist Party has long advocated dialogue with Beijing, often criticizing Chen for his confrontational style and open quest for Taiwanese independence. Ma said he would follow up on the exchanges started by Lien, but observers said he would likely avoid repeating Lien's visit for fear of alienating independence-minded voters before 2008.

Liao Fung-te, chairman of the party's development committee, pointed out that Ma has to avoid seeming too close to the Communist leadership in Beijing if he is to be successful in the presidential election. Born in Hong Kong, Ma is considered a mainlander by many native-born Taiwanese.

"Ma understands that in order to win, he will need to prove himself as a genuine Taiwanese," said Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University. "He'll probably come up with a more reasonable and flexible policy on cross-strait relations and offer an alternative to the hard line of the DPP," he added, referring to Chen's ruling party.