Beijing: Taiwanese voters have delivered an overwhelming rejection of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang government, sweeping opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen to a landslide victory in the island’s landmark presidential election on Saturday.
Ms Tsai, 59, becomes Taiwan’s first female president. Her party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, also secured an outright majority in the legislative yuan for the first time.
Addressing tens of thousands of euphoric supporters in central Taipei, a composed if noticeably hoarse Ms Tsai delivered a victory speech with strong emphasis on Taiwan’s democratic values while promising a “consistent, predictable and stable” approach to cross-strait relations with Beijing.
“My position will move past partisan politics,” she said. “We will work towards maintaining the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
“I also want to emphasise that both sides of the strait have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity. We must ensure that no provocations or accidents take place.”
Ms Tsai surged to an unassailable lead soon after counting began on Saturday evening.
Within just three hours of polls closing, rival KMT candidate Eric Chu conceded defeat and announced his resignation as party chairman. Late on Saturday night, with more than 90 per cent of the vote counted, Ms Tsai had 56 per cent of the vote to Mr Chu’s 31 per cent. A third candidate, James Soong, was on 12 per cent.
The DPP’s victory, while widely-expected, will be closely watched in Beijing, especially given the ferocity of the voter backlash against the KMT. While Ms Tsai has pledged to maintain ties with Beijing, the DPP’s charter supports independence from the mainland.
The prospect of a more combative, independence-leaning DPP government adds to Beijing’s mounting headaches on its peripheries. Anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong remains strong more than a year on from the territory’s Umbrella Movement protests, ethnic divisions and terror threats persist in far-western Xinjiang, while a volatile Kim Jong-un has seen relations with Pyongyang cool sharply.
President Ma Ying-jeou, who was ineligible to stand after reaching a two-term limit, had presided over an unprecedented eight-year period of tightening relations with Beijing, including opening direct flights and a raft of trade initiatives, culminating in a historic meeting and handshake with President Xi Jinping in November.
But he remained desperately unpopular with Taiwanese voters dissatisfied with Mr Ma and the KMT’s inability to breathe life into Taiwan’s stagnant economy.
Reflecting growing public sentiment that Mr Ma had been too accommodating to Beijing, student-led demonstrators stormed and occupied Taipei’s legislature in March 2014 to protest a trade pact with Beijing.
The so-called Sunflower Movement also gave birth to the New Power Party, which reinforced its reputation as the upstart “third force” in Taiwanese politics by snaring several legislative seats, including by protest leader Huang Kuo-Chang and Freddy Lim, the lead singer of a successful heavy metal rock band.
“I have long hair. I have tattoos. And I’m entering parliament,” a jubilant Mr Lim said.
Fears of Chinese encroachment on Taiwan’s autonomy was also injected into election day. Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese singer in a South Korean pop band, issued a video apology for appearing on television holding the Taiwanese flag, an act which angered sections of her mainland Chinese fan base. The apparently forced apology infuriated Taiwanese from all political persuasions and dominated news coverage as voters went to the polls.
Ms Tsai said the incident would serve as a constant reminder about “the importance of our country’s strength and unity to those outside our borders”.
“Holding a flag,” she said, “is a right of the Taiwanese people”.
This was Ms Tsai’s second run for presidency after losing to Mr Ma in 2012. Analysts say her greatest challenge lies in balancing the expectations for a more combative stance while building a functional relationship with Beijing.
Cross-strait relations have remained stable based upon the so-called 1992 Consensus, which states there is “one China”, even though Taipei and Beijing disagree over who has sovereignty over it. But the DPP does not subscribe to the consensus and Ms Tsai has described it as “an option, but not the only one”.
While cross-straits relations will likely be led onto “a bumpy road”, Fu-Kuo Liu, a political science professor at National Chengchi University said it was too early to jump to the necessary conclusion that they would markedly deteriorate.
Before polls closed, China reiterated it would not interfere with Taiwan’s elections.
“What we are concerned about is the cross-strait relationship,” a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said, according to official state media.