By Jonathan Standing
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou was hailed last month by one of the island's richest businessmen as an "experienced, outstanding helmsman" who will steer the economy through the "10-metre, not one-meter, waves."
The ringing endorsement by Terry Gou, the founder of the Foxconn electronics conglomerate, highlighted the successful side of Ma's policy of economic rapprochement with rival China, which has produced a landmark trade pact and a marked easing of tensions across the Taiwan strait.
But to his opponents in the January presidential election, the same statement proves that Ma's policies ignore ordinary folk in favor of the business elite like Foxconn, with its million-strong workforce in China making gadgets for Apple Inc.
It's a sentiment that plays well with voters, making next week's January 14 election too close to call.
Harvard law school educated Ma, 61, swept into office in March 2008 at head of his Nationalist Party and quickly set to work fostering closer ties with China.
The warmer business climate also defused tensions between Taipei and Beijing that marked the eight years of his independence-minded predecessor, Chen Shui-bian.
But four years on, Ma now faces a remarkably tight contest against the Democratic Progressive Party's Tsai Ing-wen.
Any gains in popularity from progress in bringing improved relations with China have been offset by concerns over the economy, jobs and pay that linger since the global financial crisis hit export-oriented economies like Taiwan.
Most polls show Ma with a slender lead over Tsai, who has focused her campaign on Ma's economic record, leveling attacks that have struck a chord with ordinary Taiwanese wrestling with rising living costs, stagnant wages and unaffordable housing.
Ma's response has been to showcase a coming "10 golden years" of peace and prosperity for all in Taiwan, a goal he says only he can achieve because of his policy of stable relations with China.
"In political terms, maybe people do not agree with us, but you can't deny that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement benefits both our farmers and fishermen," Ma said in his last televised campaign platform presentation on December 24.
Ma has repeatedly rejected accusations that his policy is handing Beijing a chance to achieve its long-stated goal of recovering Taiwan, which has been self-governing since the Nationalists retreated there after losing control of the mainland to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
Born in Hong Kong to mainland parents who moved to Taiwan when he was one -- Ma's birthplace had been a point of attack in his first campaign for president by opponents who questioned his loyalty to Taiwan.
He holds a masters degree in law from New York University and a doctorate from Harvard Law School, where he specialized in the law of the sea and international economic law.
His political career began as an English interpreter for former president Chiang Ching-kuo -- son of Taiwan's postwar strongman ruler Chiang Kai-shek. He was also a legislator, minister of justice and mayor of the capital Taipei before becoming chairman of the Nationalists in 2005.
Accused of corruption while mayor, he resigned to fight the charges and was acquitted.
The telegenic Ma is married to a former banking lawyer and the couple have two adult daughters. He is an avid jogger, swimmer and cyclist.
Ma's greatest critic may be at home. His wife once told a TV audience during the 2008 presidential campaign that "whatever weak points husbands have, he has them all."
More recently she was seen on island-wide TV scolding him for accepting a bottle of water after a speech when he already had one by his seat.
Ma, who handed back the extra bottle, later remarked that it would have been "inappropriate" to contradict his wife.
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Ed Lane)