Conventional wisdom has it that the Taiwanese people's ingrained communist phobia is often one of the most important factors in the island's elections. But there are now signs of a positive atmospheric change in cross-strait relations following Saturday's presidential election. Results of opinion polls conducted in the 10 days before the election - which were only released after the ballots had been counted - revealed that a spate of controversies connected to Beijing during the last lap of the contest had no significant impact on voters' decisions. The riots in Tibet could have played into the hands of the Democratic Progressive Party, by scaring voters away from the Kuomintang. But slogans such as 'Today's Tibet, tomorrow's Taiwan' seemed to have little effect in swinging votes towards the ruling party. Reiterations by Premier Wen Jiabao that the principle of 'one China' must prevail in cross-strait relations have apparently had no negative impact on the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, whose advocacy of a 'cross-strait common market' was vehemently attacked by his opponent, Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, during the campaign. The Beijing factor carried less weight given the enormity of people's aspirations for a change of government following eight years of misrule by president Chen Shui-bian. Humiliated in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the KMT has learned to play smart; it neutralised the DPP's smear campaign against Mr Ma and his more mainland-friendly economic strategy. The fact that the Beijing fear factor has paled clearly shows that change is in the air. In view of the deep-rooted mistrust across the Taiwan Strait, the lack of mutual understanding and the growing sense of identity in Taiwan, it is unrealistic to expect a dramatic warming of ties. Mainland-Taiwan relations will remain unsettled in the run up to the Beijing Olympics in August. But, after eight years of frosty - at times tense - relations, the KMT's return to power will open a window of opportunity for a new phase of interaction. Mr Ma said, in his post-victory speech, that his priority would be the economy. That could mean early steps by the Ma administration, following its inauguration in May, to forge co-operation with Beijing on areas such as direct flights, increasing the number of mainland visitors and Taiwan agricultural exports to the mainland. 'Next year is a golden opportunity for Ma,' said one veteran Taiwanese journalist. 'There'll be no major elections. There isn't a lot he can do in domestic policies. The room for cross-strait relations, however, is enormous. Taiwan people are prepared psychologically for change. Whether we are ready to cope with the changes in areas such as hotel facilities for visitors is another matter.' There will be no lack of interest among investors in tourism if there is a clear policy change in mainland-Taiwan relations. Despite the imminent changes, there is no doubt that policy debates will remain divisive and the process will be fraught with uncertainty. Pledging to act humbly, Mr Ma will have to build a broad consensus with the DPP on such major policies as cross-strait relations. After his overwhelming victory, Mr Ma said he would stick to his pledge of 'three no's' when dealing with the mainland, referring to no unification, no independence and no use of force. He is hoping that cross-strait relations, which have been on a slippery slope since the 1990s, can be improved by fostering co-operation on practical economic and trade issues while keeping the ambiguity over the hypersensitive, highly complex 'one China' issue. Now that Mr Ma has indicated there is room for co-operation on economic issues, the ball is in Beijing's court. A senior Taiwan official said: 'If the two sides are willing to move half a step backwards to allow more room to manoeuvre, it will result in a big step forward.' Much will depend on whether Beijing is prepared to switch to new thinking and adopt a pragmatic strategy to help put relations with Taiwan back on a healthy footing. If that happens, both sides will be able to foster closer economic ties in the short term and find a way to end the unification row in the long run. With pragmatic thinking prevailing among leaders in Beijing and Taipei, closer economic and cultural ties are in the offing. If all goes smoothly, this will bring about mutual benefits and create more opportunities for broader, deeper interaction in the Greater China region. Mr Ma has declared that Taiwan has no future if it fails to change. This is because tension within society and across the Taiwan Strait has severely undermined the island's development and stability. Despite the KMT's return to power, the eventuality of unification remains remote. Yet, the potential for change in mainland-Taiwan relations, unleashed by closer interaction, should not be underestimated. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.