Taiwan’s ruling party candidate wins presidential election

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Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive party won an unprecedented third term in office on Saturday as voters defied China’s warnings against electing presidential candidate Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing called a dangerous separatist.

With more than 90 per cent of votes counted, Lai had won 40 per cent, according to the Central Election Commission. Hou Yu-ih from the Kuomintang, the largest opposition party, had 33.5 per cent of the vote and Ko Wen-je from the smaller Taiwan People’s party had attracted 26.5 per cent.

Although the DPP lost its parliamentary majority and Lai’s vote was more than 17 percentage points lower than President Tsai Ing-wen’s when she was re-elected in 2020, the party won a higher share of votes for its nationwide list of legislators-at-large than expected.

It is the first time since Taiwan began holding free and direct presidential elections in 1996 that any party has held power beyond two four-year terms.

In a reference to Lai’s failure to win an absolute majority and his party’s loss of its majority in parliament, China said the result “shows that the DPP does not represent majority public opinion on the island”.

The Taiwan Affairs Office, the Chinese government department implementing Taiwan policy, said: “We will work with relevant political parties, groups and people from all walks of life in Taiwan to promote cross-Strait exchanges and co-operation, deepen cross-Strait integrated development and jointly promote China culture, promote the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and promote the great cause of the reunification of the motherland.”

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and refuses to renounce the use of force to bring it under its control if the country rejects unification indefinitely. It had called the election a choice between war and peace and called on the Taiwanese to make the “right choice”.

On the eve of the polls, the People’s Liberation Army warned that it “remains on high alert at all times [to] smash ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist plots in any form”.

But in a statement marking his victory, Lai appealed to Beijing to find ways to communicate and lower tension. As long as the two sides could face each other in dignity and parity, he hoped to “replace confrontation with dialogue and confidently pursue exchanges with China”, Lai said.

He added that under Tsai, Taipei had not engaged in provocation. “We just hope to maintain our democratic and free way of life. I hope that in the future cross-Strait relations can return to healthy and orderly exchanges,” he said.

“The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts by external forces to influence the results of this election. Only people of Taiwan have the right to elect our president.”

Beijing cut all communication with Taiwan’s government after the DPP came to power in 2016 because the party refuses to call the country part of China. The KMT says Taiwan belongs to a broader Chinese nation but disagrees with the Chinese Communist party over which state represents it.

Ko, who appealed to mostly young swing voters with promises of tax cuts, higher health and social spending and increasing government transparency, largely avoided talking about China in great detail.

In Washington, President Joe Biden reiterated the standard US line that “we do not support independence”.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US was committed to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability, “and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure”.

Mike Johnson, the US Republican House Speaker, congratulated Lai and said he was “happy to see democracy thriving among the Taiwanese people”. 

Johnson added that he would ask the Republican chairs of several committees in the House of Representatives to lead a delegation to Taiwan following the inauguration in May.

The Central Election Commission’s preliminary data showed that the DPP won 36.2 per cent of the legislative party list vote, 3 percentage points higher than in 2020, when Tsai won re-election with a record margin.

“The party list vote is a referendum of people’s real support for the respective parties,” said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “According to these numbers, we have a much stronger showing for the DPP than expected.”

However, analysts said Lai faced a difficult term. He will probably lead the first minority government, raising the spectre of frequent deadlock over vital issues such as strengthening Taiwan’s defences to deter Chinese aggression. 

Lai said his government, which takes office on May 20, would seek consensus with the opposition before implementing policies and consider including people from other parties in his administration.

“The elections have shown us that people want an effective government and strong checks and balances,” he said. “We fully understand and respect this new public opinion.”

Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington

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