Incumbent’s success marks dramatic comeback for party that campaigned against unification with China
Tsai Ing-Wen waves to supporters after voting in Taipei, Taiwan, on 11 January. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA
Taiwanese voters have re-elected incumbent president Tsai Ing-Wen in a landslide election that serves as a sharp rebuke to Beijing and its attempts to intimidate and cajole Taiwan into China’s fold.
Winning more than 8m votes, the most any presidential candidate has garnered since Taiwan began holding direct elections for the position in 1996, Tsai easily defeated her opponent Han Kuo-yu, whose Kuomintang party promotes closer ties with China.
“This election is about whether or not we choose freedom and democracy,” Tsai said, delivering her victory speech in Taipei. “We must work to keep our country safe and defend our sovereignty.”
More than 14 million citizens travelled to their hometowns to vote in the presidential and legislative election on Saturday, casting ballots in schools, temples, parking lots and community centres. Tsai’s party also maintained its majority of seats in the legislature.
Tsai’s win, coming after major losses for her Democratic Progressive party (DPP) in the 2018 midterm elections, marks a dramatic comeback helped by a slowly improving economy, missteps by the opposition and mass protests in Hong Kong that exposed what coming under Beijing’s authority might look like to many young Taiwanese.
Increased intimidation from China appears to have helped Tsai, who opposes unification with the mainland. In the run-up to the election, China twice sailed its new aircraft carrier through the Taiwan strait. In a speech addressed to Taiwan last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said Beijing would not rule out the use of force to bring Taiwan under its authority.
During Tsai’s first term, Beijing cut off dialogue with Taiwan, persuaded several of its few remaining allies to drop recognition of it and halted independent travel of Chinese tourists.
“This election result carries an added significance. They have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened the Taiwanese will shout our determination even more loudly back,” Tsai said.
“With each presidential election, Taiwan is showing how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation,” she said.
Taiwan came under military rule by the Kuomintang (KMT), formerly the governing power of China, after its leaders fled the country in 1949 ahead of advancing communists. Since martial law was lifted in 1987, it has gradually evolved into one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. Although Taiwan enjoys de facto independence, it is recognised as a state by only 15 other countries.
Han, Beijing’s preferred candidate, conceded the election by saying he had not “worked hard enough”. “No matter what happens, I still hope to see a united Taiwan … I urge president Tsai Ing-wen to focus on giving people a life where they can live safely and happily,” he said.