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