Land­slide poll vic­tory for Tai­wan’s pres­i­dent sends pow­er­ful re­buke to China

Tsai Ing-Wen’s re­turn as leader de­liv­ers an im­por­tant mes­sage to Bei­jing de­spite re­peated threats and in­tim­i­da­tion. Lily Kuo re­ports from Taipei

The Observer - - World - Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Wu Pei-lin and Lil­lian Yang

Tai­wanese vot­ers have re-elected in­cum­bent pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-Wen in a land­slide elec­tion that served as a sharp re­buke to Bei­jing and its at­tempts to in­tim­i­date and ca­jole the coun­try into China’s fold.

Win­ning more than 8 mil­lion votes, the most any pres­i­den­tial can­di­date has won since Tai­wan be­gan hold­ing direct elec­tions in 1996, Tsai eas­ily de­feated her op­po­nent Han Kuo-yu, of the Kuom­intang, which pro­motes closer ties with China. “This elec­tion is about whether or not we choose free­tion dom and democ­racy,” she said, de­liv­er­ing her vic­tory speech in Taipei. “We must work to keep our coun­try safe and de­fend our sovereignt­y.”

More than 14 mil­lion ci­ti­zens trav­elled to their home­towns yes­ter­day to vote in the pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tion, cast­ing bal­lots in schools, tem­ples, car parks and com­mu­nity cen­tres. Tsai’s party also won the ma­jor­ity of seats in the leg­is­la­ture.

Her win, com­ing af­ter ma­jor losses for her Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive party (DPP) in the 2018 midterm elec­tions, marks a dra­matic come­back which has been helped by a slowly im­prov­ing econ­omy, mis­steps by the op­pos­ing party, and mass protests in Hong Kong that ex­posed to many young Tai­wanese what life un­der Bei­jing’s author­ity might look like.

In­creased in­tim­i­da­tion from Bei­jing ap­pears to have helped Tsai, who op­poses uni­fi­ca­tion with China. In the runup to the elec­tion, China twice sailed its new air­craft car­rier through the Tai­wan Strait.

In a speech ad­dressed to Tai­wan last year, Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping said Bei­jing would not rule out the use of force to bring Tai­wan un­der its author­ity. Dur­ing Tsai’s first term, Bei­jing cut off di­a­logue with Tai­wan, per­suaded sev­eral of its few re­main­ing al­lies to drop recog­ni­tion of the coun­try, and pre­vented Chi­nese tourists from trav­el­ling there.

“This elec­tion re­sult car­ries an added sig­nif­i­cance. They have shown that when our sovereignt­y and democ­racy are threat­ened, the Tai­wanese will shout our de­ter­mi­naeven more loudly back,” Tsai said.

“With each pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Tai­wan is show­ing how much we cher­ish our free demo­cratic way of life and how much we cher­ish our na­tion.”

Tai­wan came un­der mil­i­tary rule by the Kuom­intang (KMT), for­merly the gov­ern­ing power of China, af­ter its lead­ers fled the main­land in 1949 ahead of ad­vanc­ing com­mu­nists. Since mar­tial law was lifted in 1987, it has grad­u­ally trans­formed into one of the most vi­brant democ­ra­cies in Asia. Al­though Tai­wan en­joys de facto in­de­pen­dence, it is only recog­nised as a state by 15 other coun­tries.

Han, Bei­jing’s pre­ferred can­di­date, con­ceded the elec­tion by say­ing he had not “worked hard enough”.

“No mat­ter what hap­pens, I still hope to see a united Tai­wan … I urge Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-Wen to fo­cus on giv­ing peo­ple a life where they can live safely and hap­pily,” he said.

Han, a plain-spo­ken pop­ulist who had cam­paigned on the slo­gan “Tai­wan safe, peo­ple rich”, backed off

from calls for closer ties with China af­ter they ap­peared to dam­age his pop­u­lar­ity..

His sup­port­ers were grim-faced and some were cry­ing at the KMT’s head­quar­ters in Taipei.

“This is just a huge loss for the [Chi­nese Com­mu­nist party]. The CCP is likely to re­spond in terms of dou­bling down on their cur­rent strat­egy of try­ing to pun­ish Tai­wan as much as pos­si­ble, but at the end of the day it shows it’s just go­ing to push peo­ple to­ward a green pres­i­dent,” said Lev Nach­man, a PhD can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, study­ing so­cial move­ments and fo­cus­ing on Tai­wan.

Sup­port­ers of Tsai said the re­sult was proof of Tai­wan’s democ­racy reach­ing ma­tu­rity. In the lead-up to the elec­tion, ci­ti­zens were flooded with fake news and dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns, many sus­pected to have come from China. “This is a test of how much democ­racy and free­dom have de­vel­oped in Tai­wan. Peo­ple can judge right from wrong, whether the news is true or false, and whether or not they will sup­port politi­cians who do lit­tle but put on a show,” said Tek Dee, 36, who voted in Taipei.

She said she had barely slept the night be­fore due to anx­i­ety about the elec­tion. She added: “It’s a re­jec­tion of China’s at­tempts to swal­low up or in­flu­ence Tai­wan.”

Many have de­scribed the elec­tion as a gen­er­a­tional stand-off, with older vot­ers sup­port­ing Han and the KMT’s poli­cies of closer eco­nomic ties with China. Younger Tai­wanese have skewed to­ward Tsai, who cam­paigned heav­ily on pledges to pro­tect Tai­wan’s democ­racy.

“Tsai’s vic­tory dis­pels the nar­ra­tive that Bei­jing has been push­ing, that Tai­wan’s eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal fu­ture is re­liant on China,” said Jes­sica Drun, a non-res­i­dent fel­low at the Project 2049 In­sti­tute.

While Tsai has po­si­tioned her­self as a pro­tec­tor of Tai­wan’s sovereignt­y, some be­lieve she and her party have not gone far enough. Tsai has said she will main­tain Tai­wan’s cur­rent de-facto sovereignt­y and op­pose any form of “one coun­try, two sys­tems” – the frame­work em­ployed in Hong Kong that has been floated as a pos­si­ble model for Tai­wan.

The for­eign min­is­ter, Joseph Wu, said this week that Tsai’s gov­ern­ment would not dis­rupt the sta­tus quo with a for­mal dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence.

“If to­day she said she was for Tai­wan in­de­pen­dence, I would im­me­di­ately give her my vote,” said 22-year-old Huang Kaicheng, who re­cently grad­u­ated from univer­sity in Taipei. Huang voted for Han but be­lieves nei­ther party has of­fered much in the way of pol­icy pro­pos­als. “Who­ever we elect, it won’t make a dif­fer­ence,” he said.

Tsai’s win also comes af­ter an­other elec­tion re­sult that has been em­bar­rass­ing for Bei­jing, when pro-democ­racy can­di­dates in Hong Kong won a land­slide vic­tory in district coun­cil elec­tions in Novem­ber.

Re­sponse to Tai­wan’s elec­tion was muted on the main­land, with China’s state coun­cil for Tai­wan af­fairs is­su­ing a state­ment that Bei­jing “res­o­lutely op­poses any sep­a­ratist at­tempt for ‘Tai­wan in­de­pen­dence’ and main­tains its sup­port for “peace­ful re­uni­fi­ca­tion”.

Getty

Sup­port­ers cel­e­brate the vic­tory of Tai­wan’s Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-Wen, below, who won the poll by a record num­ber of votes.

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