Taiwan elects William Lai president in historic election, angering China
In a historic election, Taiwanese voters have elected William Lai, a pro-sovereignty candidate, as their president, solidifying a trajectory increasingly distinct from China.
This decision has provoked displeasure from Beijing, which, in response to the election results, issued a statement asserting that “Taiwan is part of China.”
Despite advocating for “peaceful reunification,” Beijing has not excluded the possibility of using force and framed the Taiwan election as a choice between “war and peace.” China has heightened its military presence around the island, raising concerns about potential conflict.
The pro-sovereignty stance of Mr. Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is strongly opposed by Beijing’s communist government, which had governed Taiwan for eight years.
Mr. Lai’s victory, securing an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term for the DPP, marks a groundbreaking development.
In his initial comments following his opponents’ concession, he emphasized that the country would persist on its current course, declaring, “We will not turn around or look backwards.”
Later, while addressing tens of thousands of ecstatic supporters on the streets of Taipei, Mr Lai characterised his win as a triumph of democracy.
“We’ve done it. We didn’t let external forces influence our election. That’s because we decided that only we can choose our president,” he said. In the lead-up to the polls, Taiwan had accused China of attempting to interfere with the process.
But Mr Lai also had a message for China.
He told reporters he favoured more exchanges and dialogue over obstructionism and conflict, and called for peace and stability with Beijing.
At the same time, he added, he would “maintain the cross-strait status quo” – neither seeking independence nor unification with China – and pledged to “safeguard Taiwan from threats from China”.
Beijing has labelled Mr Lai a “separatist” and “troublemaker” over remarks he made in the past supporting Taiwanese independence, which it sees as a red line.
But in recent months he indicated he would not pursue formal independence.
On Saturday, a statement from the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council insisted that Taiwan’s elections “cannot stop the unstoppable trend of the eventual reunification of the motherland” and the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion” in Taiwan.
The US, Taiwan’s biggest ally, was swift to congratulate Mr Lai on his win. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also praised the island’s “robust democratic system and electoral process”.
In a statement, he said Washington is “committed to maintaining cross-strait peace and stability”. Earlier President Joe Biden told reporters the US “does not support independence” for Taiwan.
Outside the DPP’s headquarters in Taipei on Saturday, supporters celebrated the result.
“I’m so happy now. Most Taiwanese people want to protect our democratic lifestyle,” said Cheng Yu-tsai.
“I don’t care [how China reacts]. We have to hold up our values and insist on what we think is right and move on,” said Wei Yi-tsai.
Mr Lai’s 40% of the vote put him comfortably ahead of Hou Yu-ih from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party. Since 2000, Taiwan has alternated between the DPP and the KMT which is friendlier to Beijing.
Maverick politician Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party, a newcomer party to Taiwan’s political scene popular with young voters, gained a quarter of the vote.
Voters on Saturday also chose their legislature. The DPP has lost its majority with the opposition gaining ground, though no one party has enough seats to control parliament, according to Taiwanese media reports.
Observers say that an opposition-dominated legislature with a DPP president could mean the process of governing Taiwan would become more fraught.