23 May 2024

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen declared a landslide victory in Saturday’s election as voters delivered a stunning rebuke of Beijing’s campaign to isolate the self-ruled island and handed its first female leader a second term.

Tsai, 63, announced her victory as thousands of jubilant supporters cheered and waved flags outside her party headquarters with the ongoing vote count revealing an all but unassailable lead.

“Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free, democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation,” she told reporters.

Her main rival, Han Kuo-yu of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party, had conceded defeat shortly beforehand.

Official results showed Tsai was romping ahead with 57 percent — more than eight million votes — on Saturday evening. Han trailed behind with 38 percent.

The Central Election Commission was still counting votes when Tsai declared, but Han knew he could not close the gap.

The result is a huge blow for Beijing, which has made no secret of wanting to see Tsai turfed out and the KMT take her place.

Over the last four years it ramped up economic and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island, hoping it would encourage voters to support Tsai’s opposition.

But the strong arm tactics backfired and voters flocked to her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), fuelled in part by China’s hardline response to months of huge and violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

– ‘No threats’ –

Tsai pitched herself as a defender of liberal democratic values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by China under President Xi Jinping.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to retake the island one day, by force if necessary.

Her campaign frequently invoked Hong Kong’s protests as a warning of what might lie ahead should China one day take control of Taiwan.

During her victory speech on Saturday night Tsai said she was committed to dialogue with China’s leaders and wanted peace.

But she called on Beijing to halt its sabre rattling towards Taiwan and respect the idea that only the island’s 23 million inhabitants can decide its future.

“I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation,” she said.

Tsai is loathed by Beijing because she refuses to acknowledge the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”.

But China is also Taiwan’s largest trade partner, leaving the island in a precariously dependent relationship.

Han, the 62-year-old mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung, favoured much warmer ties with China — saying it would boost Taiwan’s fortunes — and accused the current administration of needlessly antagonising Beijing.

But his campaign struggled to gain momentum or escape the perception that he was too cosy with Taiwan’s giant neighbour.

“The citizens of the Republic of China have already made their decision and as a candidate I obey the outcome of the election,” he said in his concession speech, using Taiwan’s official name.

– Carrot or stick? –

Tsai’s victory is the second major electoral setback for Beijing in recent weeks.

In November, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide win over pro-Beijing parties in district elections as the city convulses with months of anti-government protests.

“Tsai’s landslide victory is like a slap in the face to Beijing as Taiwanese voters say no to its intimidation,” Hung Chin-fu, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, told AFP.

Joshua Eisenman, a foreign affairs expert the University of Notre Dame, said all eyes will be watching China’s response.

“Will the hardline position towards Tsai… be continued or will Beijing adopt a more ‘soft sell’ approach that is more carrot and less stick?” he said.

Taiwanese voters have watched events in Hong Kong closely because the financial hub is run on Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model.

China has suggested the same model could one day be applied to Taiwan if the island ever came to be controlled by Beijing.

But an increasing number of Taiwanese voters are spooked by that proposal.

“I don’t want Taiwan’s democracy to turn into how Hong Kong is now,” Dennis Wu, a doctor, told AFP as he cast a vote for Tsai in the capital Taipei.