In Taiwan, voters elect president as tensions loom in China

Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-te, who has faced sustained hostility from China, won the island democracy’s presidential election on Saturday, a result that could lead Beijing to increase pressure on Taiwan, deepening tensions with Washington.

For many of the millions of Taiwanese citizens who lined up at the polls on Saturday, the vote centered on the question of who should lead Taiwan in an increasingly tense standoff with its much larger, autocratic and heavily armed neighbor, China.

They chose Lai of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which wants to continue moving Taiwan away from Beijing’s influence, over the opposition Nationalist Party, which has promised to expand trade ties and restart talks with China. After the majority of votes were counted, Lai’s main opponent, Hou Yu-ih of the opposition Nationalist Party, relented and apologized to his supporters at a party event.

The election saw strong voter turnout of nearly 70 percent. In the afternoon, the main parties held meetings for their supporters to watch the vote counting after the polls closed at 4 p.m.

At the DPP rally outside its headquarters in Taipei, thousands of supporters, many waving pink and green flags, cheered as Lai’s lead grew during the vote count, which was shown on a large screen on an outdoor stage. fresh air. Many described feeling hopeful that a Lai presidency would protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and unique identity.

“I support Lai Ching-te because I believe he will defend Taiwan’s democratic values,” said Huang I-hsuan, 45, a financial analyst who was at the meeting.

At some polling stations, lines began to form even before voting began in the morning, and many multigenerational families showed up in groups. Taiwanese citizens, who must vote in person, fanned out to reach nearly 18,000 polling stations in temples, churches, community centers and schools throughout the island.

Lai had been widely seen as the favorite. But in the days before the vote, the race was too close to call.

Hou, the nationalist candidate, had narrowed Lai’s lead to just a few percentage points in many polls in recent weeks. He had promised to ease tensions with Beijing, arguing that stronger ties with China would help reduce the risk of conflict.

And Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party candidate who had tried to appeal to voters fed up with the two established parties, despite falling in the polls, had continued to attract large numbers of people to his rallies, including they almost 200,000 people Friday night.

One of Ko’s supporters, Jessica Chou, 25, said she thought the DPP had brought Taiwan too close to Washington and that she hoped the next leader would stay away from both world powers.

“I’m worried about China, but I also think we can’t always trust the United States,” Chou said as she left the school where she said she had voted for Ko. “I hope Taiwan can find its own strategically advantageous position.”

On Friday night, each of the parties held raucous election-eve rallies across Taiwan. In Chiayi, candidates from all three parties drove campaign vans around a large fountain in a circle in the center of the city, shouting slogans and urging people to vote.

Large crowds of supporters filled the side streets around the circle, waving colorful banners and large balloons. The parade was festive, with candidate vans playing club music and several supporters dressed in inflatable dinosaur costumes for no apparent political reason.

Waving a small Nationalist Party flag at the rally in Chiayi, Wu Lee-shu, 60, a clothing store employee, said she was worried about Taiwan’s security under the DPP. “I will vote for the Nationalist Party because I think they are less likely to push Taiwan into war,” she said. “I’m worried about letting the other party take power, but I will respect the results of democracy.”

The candidates had also debated domestic issues such as housing and energy policy, and traded accusations that their rivals were involved in shady land deals. But the China issue overshadowed the election, as it always has.

Beijing claims that the island of 23 million Its territory is about 100 miles from the Chinese coast. He has urged Taiwan to accept unification and has refused to rule out the use of force if Chinese leaders decide it is necessary. The United States is by far Taiwan’s most important security backer and, under Presidents Biden and Trump, has become more openly active in supporting the island against Chinese pressure.

Lai will now have a crucial voice over Taiwan’s security and relations with Beijing over the next four years, a period in which some US experts and military commanders have warned that the Chinese military could become increasingly capable of carrying out an assault. effective military to the island. , approximately one hundred miles off the eastern coast of China.

Before Lai assumes the presidency in May, the Taiwanese people, along with officials in Beijing and Washington, will be watching for any early signs of his rapprochement with China. Taiwan’s largest trading partner as well as a growing threat to its autonomy.

His party rejects Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, and the Chinese government has especially vilified Lai, who earlier in his career called himself a “hands-on worker” for Taiwan independence. Chinese officials, echoing Lai’s Taiwanese opponents, have suggested that a victory for him would risk bringing Taiwan closer to war.

Lai’s victory gives his party a third consecutive term in power, something no party has previously achieved since Taiwan adopted direct presidential elections in 1996. He has vowed to stick with the approach of the current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen. : Keep Beijing at arm’s length while seeking to avoid conflict and strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies. Lai’s vice presidential running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s former representative in Washington, is likely to work with Lai to continue that effort.

Since Tsai became president eight years ago, China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese planes and warships regularly test Taiwan’s military, and that intimidation could increase, at least for a time, if Lai wins.