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Taiwan's China-skeptic ruling-party candidate wins presidential election

Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's president-elect (center) appears at an election night rally outside the Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday.
An Rong Xu
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Lai Ching-te, Taiwan's president-elect (center) appears at an election night rally outside the Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Lai Ching-te of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is Taiwan's new president-elect, after a three-way election that will determine the self-ruled island's future stance towards China.

Since its founding in the 1980s as an alliance of underground dissident groups, the DPP has now secured a third term in the presidential office, a first in Taiwan's short democratic history.

This year's election came after more than a month of intense campaigning from all three parties, each making the case that they would improve the island's economy while best protecting Taiwan from China, which hopes to one day control the island.

Lai's election "portends tensions with China"

Analysts say the DPP presidential victory portends tensions with China, which has vowed to control Taiwan one day and has not ruled out a military invasion to do so. Beijing has repeatedly accused Lai — also known as William Lai — of being a "separatist" and last April, Beijing sanctioned his vice presidential running mate, Bi-khim Hsiao.

"[Beijing] will use more economic coercion, diplomatic coercion, more informational warfare, and maybe more on the trade instead of using the military approach," said Fang-yu Chen, a political science at Soochow University in Taipei. "But that being said, we still have to get ready."

In his victory speech, Lai said Taiwan is willing to talk to China "on the basis of dignity and parity," but he also said his administration will be "determined" to safeguard Taiwan from threats and intimidation from China.

China responded to Lai's victory shortly after the speech. "Our stance on resolving the Taiwan question and realizing national reunification remains consistent, and our determination is as firm as rock," said Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his election. He reiterated Washington's commitment "to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability, and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure."

A smooth election with a high turnout

Saturday's voting closed at 4 p.m. local time, with the Kuomintang (KMT) party conceding the presidential race in less than four hours. About 75 percent of the island's eligible voters cast ballots.

"I'm sorry I disappointed my supporters, and I would like to apologize," KMT's Hou told the media. Ko Wen-je, of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), also conceded defeat.

This year's presidential election was closely contested, with Lai winning more than 5 million votes, or about 40 percent of the popular vote. It fell short of the more than 8 million votes his predecessor won during the island's last elections in 2020.

The KMT garnered more than 3.9 million votes and the TPP about 3.1 million.

For security reasons, Taiwan does not allow absentee voting, mandating that all voters cast their ballots in-person, on paper only. The physical ballots are then counted by hand at every polling station, a process that is completely open to the public.

But Taiwan's election is not just about China

Lai, who will be sworn in as Taiwan's new president in late May, faces gridlock among political rivals and an electorate divided over issues of identity and relations with China.

His party, the DPP, lost its majority in the legislature, while the opposition KMT won 52 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan.

While failing to win the presidency, Taiwan's first-ever competitive third party, the TPP, won eight seats, giving the party leverage over the KMT and DPP parties; they will need to court TPP legislators in order to pass defense policies and pass budgets.

The rise of the TPP in Taiwan's traditionally two-party political system has reflected voter fatigue with the perceived corruption and ideological rigidity of both the DPP and the KMT, the island's more established parties, analysts say.

Younger voters especially have flocked to the TPP, which has promised to address rising home prices and pledged greater spending on healthcare and rent subsidies.

"The price for housing is crazy, and the economy is going down," said Kevin Ko, 29, a project manager at a technology company in Taipei. "Our generation of 25-30 year old, the younger generation, we have been [voting] in elections a lot, but is Taiwan really getting better?"

In his victory speech, Lai acknowledged that his party did not hold on to a majority in parliament. "The elections have told us that people expect an effective government as well as strong checks and balances," Lai said, adding that he will cooperate with opposition parties to resolve the problems Taiwan faces.

Ailsa Chang, Patrick Jarenwattananon, Jonaki Mehta, Hugo Peng, and Mallory Yu contributed reporting from Taipei.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.