Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen thanked the island’s electorate Saturday for putting “democratic values into practice” after securing more than 57% of the vote.
Tsai’s comfortable victory caps a remarkable comeback after devastating local election results in 2018 saw her step down as leader of the Democratic Progressive Party following its crushing defeat in races across the self-governing island.
Following Saturday’s vote, Tsai addressed tensions with China over the territory’s sovereignty, saying Taiwan is willing to engage with China but that China must respect the voice of Taiwan’s voters.
“The results of this election carry an added significance because they have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back,” Tsai said during a news conference.
Tsai also urged China to abandon threats of force against Taiwan and said all countries should consider Taiwan “a partner, not an issue.”
With more than 99% of the votes counted by Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, Tsai’s 8 million votes surpasses Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 record of 7,658,724 votes. In Saturday’s vote, Han Kuo-yu received more than 5.4 million votes, and James Soong received more than 600,000 votes.
Han, of the Kuomintang (KMT) party and the main opponent to Tsai, conceded defeat Saturday in a speech to supporters, adding that he had called Tsai to congratulate her.
The election was dominated more than ever by relations with Beijing, which was accused of trying to bully voters and distort the results in its favor.
Tsai’s resurgent popularity has been largely courtesy of domestic fears over China. Han was seen by some voters as being too close to Beijing, as many looked with concern at unrest in Hong Kong — once seen as a model for some in China for a potential future takeover of de facto independent Taiwan.
Fears of China loom
Taiwan is a democratically governed island of 23 million people in the South China Sea. A Japanese colony until 1945, it was taken over by the Kuomintang after they lost the Chinese civil war and moved their Republic of China (ROC) government to the island.
KMT-ruled Taiwan was a dictatorship for many decades before democratic reforms began in the late 1980s, leading to its first direct presidential election in 1996. Since then, the island has gone through a major change in its identity, with many — particularly younger — people regarding themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese and supporting full independence from the mainland. That would mean the ROC, as Taiwan still calls itself, would become the Republic of Taiwan.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never controlled Taiwan, but that has not stopped the Communist government regarding the island as an integral part of its territory and vowing to “retake” it, by force if necessary.
In the past, as Taiwan has appeared poised to drift further out of its orbit, Beijing has resorted to aggressive measures — for instance, firing missiles into the sea near the island ahead of the 1996 elections. Last month, Beijing sailed its new aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait, which divides the island from mainland China, along with several naval frigates. The move was greeted with some alarm by Taipei, which urged Beijing to uphold “peace and stability across the strait and in the region.”
This week, the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese state-run tabloid, quoted Chinese officials and analysts as warning “that reunification of the motherland is an inevitable trend regardless of who wins.”
According to some, in addition to bellicose statements and shows of force, Beijing also pursued a more subtle approach to influence the elections, targeting Taiwanese voters with fake news and misleading information.
Numerous instances of disinformation regarding voting procedure, party policies, ID requirements and Tsai herself were tracked by the Taiwan FactCheck Center, an independent group. One particularly prevalent piece of fake news is that Tsai’s PhD from the London School of Economics is somehow illegitimate, despite the university repeatedly confirming the degree.
Taiwan’s Central Election Commission also warned of a surge in fake news and disinformation in the run-up to Saturday’s vote.
This story has been updated.