Candidate Strongly Opposed By China Elected President Of Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Ruling-party candidate Lai Ching-te emerged victorious in Taiwan’s presidential election on Saturday, a result that will determine the trajectory of the self-ruled democracy’s contentious relations with China over the next four years.

China had called the poll a choice between war and peace. Beijing strongly opposes Lai, the current vice president who abandoned his medical career to pursue politics from the grassroots to the presidency.

At stake is peace, social stability and prosperity on the island, 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the coast of China, which Beijing claims as its own and to be retaken by force if necessary. China is run by the Communist Party, which allows no political opposition.

While domestic issues such as the sluggish economy and expensive housing also featured prominently in the campaign, Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party’s appeal to self-determination, social justice and rejection of China’s threats ultimately won out. It’s the first time a single party has led Taiwan for three consecutive four-year presidential terms since the first open presidential election in 1996.

At a post-election news conference, Lai thanked the Taiwanese electorate for “writing a new chapter in our democracy. We have shown the world how much we cherish our democracy. This is our unwavering commitment.”

He added: “Taiwan will continue to walk side by side with democracies from around the world … through our actions. The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election.”

Lai supporter Hsieh Hsin-chou, a 57-year-old physical therapist, said he was “very proud” of the election result.

“We choose our own president in Taiwan. We are a country. We are a country. We are a light of the world. We love freedom. We love democracy. We (are) supposed to choose our new president,” Hsieh said.

Lai and incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen reject China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan, a former Japanese colony that split from the Chinese mainland amid civil war in 1949. They have, however, offered to speak with Beijing, which has repeatedly refused to hold talks and called them separatists.

Beijing was believed to have favored the candidate from the more China-friendly Nationalist party, also known as Kuomintang, or KMT. Its candidate, Hou Yu-ih, also had promised to restart talks with China while bolstering national defense. He had vowed not to move toward unifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait if elected.

In his concession speech, Hou apologized for “not working hard enough” to regain power for the KMT, which ran Taiwan under martial law for nearly four decades before democratic reforms in the 1980s.

“I let everyone down. I am here to express my sincerest apologies, I’m sorry,” Hou said in front of an audience whose numbers fell well short of expectations.

Hou supporter David Chiau, who works in information technology, said the loss came as a shock, but he was pleased by the turnout for the KMT, which he had hoped could have merged with the opposition.

A third candidate in the race, Ko Wen-je of the smaller Taiwan People’s Party, or TPP, had drawn the support particularly of young people wanting an alternative to the KMT and DPP, Taiwan’s traditional opposing parties, which have largely taken turns governing since the 1990s.

Ko said that dialogue between the sides was crucial, but that his bottom line would be that Taiwan needs to remain democratic and free.

“At least this time the TPP has become a critical opposition power. I would like to say thank you to every one again, as the chairman of the TPP,” Ko said. “Each vote represents recognition and support for us.”

“This is also the first time that Taiwan managed to create a whole new three-party-competition between the clash of the green and blue,” he said, referring to the DPP and the KMT by the colors with which they are affiliated.

Chen Binhua, spokesperson of the Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said that Beijing wouldn’t accept the election result as representing “the mainstream public opinion on the island,” without giving any evidence or justification.

“This election cannot change the basic situation and the direction of cross Strait relations, nor can it change the common desire of compatriots on both sides to get closer and closer, nor can it stop the general trend that the motherland will eventually and inevitably be reunified,” Chen said.

Supporters of Taiwan's 2024 presidential election candidate, Taiwan vice president Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, cheer after Lai's victory, in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Ruling-party candidate Lai Ching-te has emerged victorious in Taiwan’s presidential election and his opponents have conceded. The result in Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary election will chart the trajectory of relations with China over the next four years. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)
Supporters of Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election candidate, Taiwan vice president Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, cheer after Lai’s victory, in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Ruling-party candidate Lai Ching-te has emerged victorious in Taiwan’s presidential election and his opponents have conceded. The result in Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary election will chart the trajectory of relations with China over the next four years. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

via Associated Press

The United States, which is bound by its laws to provide Taiwan with the weapons needed to defend itself, had pledged support for whichever government emerges, reinforced by the Biden administration’s plans to send an unofficial delegation made up of former senior officials to the island shortly after the election.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his victory.

“We also congratulate the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process,” Blinken said in a statement.

Lai won nearly 5.6 million votes, amassing just over 40%, while Hou claimed 33.5%. Ko garnered 26.5%.

Evelyn Ni traveled from China especially to get a taste of Taiwan’s election.

“I would really like to experience what it is like to be empowered,” the 24-year-old student told The Associated Press. She said that she started paying closer attention to relations between Taipei and Beijing after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and is worried that China could one day do the same with Taiwan.

Besides the China tensions, domestic issues such as the dearth of affordable housing and stagnating wages dominated the campaign.

For Tony Chen, a 74-year-old retiree who voted in Taipei in the hour before the polls closed, the election boiled down to a choice between communism and democracy.

“I hope democracy wins,” he said. He added that more Taiwanese were open to China’s model of governance decades ago, when the Chinese economy was growing by double digits annually, but are repulsed by the crackdown on civil liberties that has occurred under current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Stacy Chen, 43, said she has always voted for the DPP, because “Taiwan is an independent country.” She said she wanted her son to grow up in a country that is separate from China.

Taiwan’s election was seen as having “real and lasting influence on the geopolitical landscape,” said Gabrielle Reid, associate director with the global intelligence consultancy S-RM.

“The outcome of the vote will ultimately determine the nature of ties with China relative to the West and will have strong bearing on the state of play in the South China Sea,” she said.

Close ties with the United States will likely draw even closer under Lai’s administration.

Beijing is likely to deploy a “maximum pressure campaign” to influence the new administration along military, economic and political lines, Sung told the AP.

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