President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory over China-friendly opposition challenger Han Kuo-yu to clinch a second term in Taiwan’s presidential election, dealing a blow to Beijing, which has long sought to bring the democratically run island under its control.
Han conceded defeat just before 9 pm at his headquarters in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Tsai had a record 7.7 million votes, Taiwan’s Central Election Commission said around 8:30 p.m. Han had 5.2 million.
The president, whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates formal independence from China, has vowed that Taiwan will never be unified with China as long she is in power. Meanwhile Han, of the Kuomintang party, had struggled to find a consistent message on China after a meteoric rise that saw him become mayor of Kaohsiung — Taiwan’s third-largest city — and a top contender to unseat Tsai.
Votes for Tsai surpassed the 6.9 million she reaped in 2016. Crowds of her supporters gathered for an evening victory celebration at her campaign’s headquarters in downtown Taipei after hundreds of thousands rallied in city center the night before the vote. It was a stark contrast to the scene at Han’s headquarters further south in Kaohsiung, where staffers cried as it became apparent Tsai was likely to win.
The victory culminates a turnaround for Tsai, who had faced an uphill battle for re-election after the DPP was soundly defeated in local elections in November 2018. She was bolstered by a resilient economy and stock market and protests against China’s grip in neighbouring Hong Kong, which have confronted Taiwanese voters with the potential perils of closer ties with the mainland. As she cast her ballot Saturday morning, Tsai said she hoped “every citizen can vote today to make democracy in Taiwan stronger.”
“I voted for Tsai Ing-wen because I don’t want to lose Taiwan’s freedom,” Rita Huang, a 34-year-old public servant, said after voting in Taipei.
Voters in the world’s only Chinese-speaking democracy faced pressure to pick sides in a global power struggle between the US and China. Issues such as wages, housing and air quality were important to voters, but the self-ruled island’s complex relationship with China is the main political fissure in Taiwanese society.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed his desire to use the same “one country, two systems” framework by which Beijing governs Hong Kong to bring the democracy of 23 million people back under its control.
Tsai rejects the prospect, and her victory Saturday likely means four more years of no talks between the two sides on one of the region’s main potential flash points, a disappointment for those who had cast their votes for Han.
“I support closer and more peaceful ties with China and am against independence for Taiwan,” Betty Chang, a 60-year-old accountant, said at a Taipei polling station. “If we choose independence, China will attack us for sure.”
Nora Hsu, 41, sat outside Han’s campaign headquarters in Kaohsiung with her two children. “I travel to China a lot due to work, I have seen China rising from a not-so developed place to a huge economic success with my own eyes,” she said “So I think it’s good to have close economic relationships with China. Politics shouldn’t get in the way.”
A Japanese colony for the first half of the 20th century, Taiwan came under the control of China’s Nationalist government after World War II. It became a refuge for Chiang Kai-shek and his troops as they fled the Communists at the end of China’s civil war.
China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, cut off all contact with Tsai’s government after she declined to endorse the “one-China” policy following her inauguration in 2016. Beijing has since sought to further isolate Taipei diplomatically by convincing smaller nations in the Pacific, Africa and Central America to switch sides.
Xi said early last year that Taiwan was central to his plans to “rejuvenate” China in a speech that closely tied the Taiwan issue to his pledge to make China a global power by 2050. China “must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era,” he told a gathering in Beijing to mark the 40th anniversary of a landmark overture to Taipei after the US and China established relations.
“China has failed to shift public opinion in favour of eventual unification, and many of its coercive measures have been counterproductive, pushing the Taiwanese people away,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Taiwan and Chinese politics. “The more that China has attempted to impose a Chinese identity on Taiwan, the more that the people have identified as Taiwanese, rather than Chinese.”