Tsai Ing-Wen has been re-elected as Taiwan’s president, as voters delivered a sharp rebuke to Beijing by choosing a leader who had campaigned on protecting their country from China.
As results came in on Saturday following a quiet day of voting in schools, temples, and community centres across the island, Tsai, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), quickly established a lead over her opponent, Han Kuo-yu, of the Kuomintang, which promotes closer ties with China.
“With each presidential election, Taiwan is showing how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation,” Tsai said in her victory speech in Taipei.
“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.”
Han conceded after Tsai garnered 8m votes, compared to Han’s 5.3m, with more than 80% of the votes counted.
“I have called Tsai and congratulated her. I did not work hard enough and failed everyone’s expectations,” he said.
Her win, coming after bruising losses for her party in the 2018 mid-term elections, marks a dramatic comeback helped by a slowly-improving economy, missteps by the opposing party, and mass protests in Hong Kong that exposed what coming under Beijing’s authority might look like to many young Taiwanese.
Beijing claims Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that will be brought under its control by any means necessary, including force. Cross-strait ties have worsened over the last four years under Tsai, who opposes unification with China.
“This is a test of how much democracy and freedom have developed in Taiwan,” said Tek Dee, 36, who voted in Taipei. She said she had barely slept the night before due to anxiety about the election. “It’s a rejection of China’s attempts to swallow up or influence Taiwan.”
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.
On Saturday, residents also voted for district and at-large party representatives for the parliament.
Supporters of Han Kuo-yu, a populist candidate who has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump, were grim-faced and some were crying at the KMT’s headquarters in Taipei.
Many have described the election as a generational standoff, with older voters supporting Han and the KMT’s policies of closer economic ties with China. Younger Taiwanese have skewed toward Tsai, whose campaign has focused on appealing to the youth.
“Tsai’s victory dispels the narrative that Beijing has been pushing that Taiwan’s economic and political future is reliant on China,” said Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.
In Kaohsiung, a DPP-stronghold that Han won in a surprise victory in 2018, voters said they had been galvanised by the protests in Hong Kong. Several said many of their friends and relatives had travelled back home to vote, in contrast to previous elections. Taiwan does not have absentee ballots and voters must cast their ballots where they are registered in their hometowns.
“Hong Kong has driven a lot of young people to come back and cast their votes,” said Wu, who voted for Tsa along with his two daughters, in a district dominated by public servants and military officers that typically supports the KMT.
Increased surveillance and repression in China under its leader, Xi Jinping, who said last year in an address directed at Taiwan that independence was a “dead end” and unification was inevitable, have also pushed more voters away.
“Young people here are very much more anxious about going to China,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor of east Asian politics with a focus on Taiwan at Davidson College.
“Everyone in Taiwan knows about Xinjiang. Everyone in Taiwan knows that your phone is not secure. They have this sense that in the mainland they would be surveilled and would have to watch everything they did … and really bad things can happen,” she said.
The election has been characterised by a flood of fake news and disinformation, which many observers believe came from China. But Han supporters say he is also a victim.
“This election is a battle between truth and evil. If Han loses, I will not believe in justice anymore,” said Xu, a lecturer at a local university who asked to only give her surname.
Still, some supporters of independence believe Tsai and her party have not gone far enough. Tsai has said she will maintain Taiwan’s current de facto sovereignty and oppose any form of “one country, two systems” – the framework employed in Hong Kong that has been floated as a possible model for Taiwan.
The foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said this week that Tsai’s government would not disrupt the status quo with a formal declaration of independence.
“If today she said she was for Taiwan independence, I would immediately give her my vote,” said 22-year-old Huang Kaicheng, who recently graduated from a university in Taipei.
Huang voted for Han but believes neither party has offered much in the way of policy proposals. “Whoever we elect, it won’t make a difference. Life goes on,” he said.
In China, state media covered the election but censors appeared to have blocked discussion of the race, with the hashtag Taiwan 2020 election returning no results. Xinhua ran a special report on the number of Taiwanese who had come to work in China.
The state-owned Global Times posted on Twitter that “analysts from Chinese mainland forecast more obstacles in cross-Straits relations after her reelection, leading to some calling for a firm preparation for reunification”.
Additional reporting by Wu Pei-lin