Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), secured a historic third term on Saturday as Vice President Lai Ching-te won the country’s widely watched presidential election with 40.05 percent of the vote.
Taiwan’s electoral system is based on first-past-the-post voting, awarding the victory to the presidential-VP pairing with the highest percentage of votes.
Turnout on the self-ruled island was put at more than 70 percent with some 19.5 million Taiwanese eligible to vote.
A favourite to succeed incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who is due to step down at the end of her second consecutive term in May, Lai’s win was in line with previous forecasts.
Lai ran against the main opposition party’s – the Kuomintang – candidate Hou Yu-ih , who came in a close second with 33.5 percent of the vote and the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-Je who trailed both candidates with only 26.5 percent.
Speaking as last results trickled in, Lai told a press conference that the election was a victory for Taiwan’s democracy.
“We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy,” he said.
In an election framed as a choice between “peace and war” by China, which deems the DPP’s governance as “incompatible” with cross-strait peace, Lai’s victory comes at a crucial moment amid rising tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
Claiming the island as part of its territory, Beijing responded to the election results by saying that “reunification” with Taiwan is still “inevitable”.
The vote “will not impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification”, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Chen Binhua said in a statement carried by state news agency Xinhua.
President Joe Biden reiterated that the US is “not supporting” Taiwan’s independence, after Taiwanese voters rebuffed China and gave the ruling party a third presidential term.
Lai was sworn in as vice president in 2020 when Tsai won the presidential election.
Labelled a separatist by Beijing, the winner in Taiwan’s presidential race has promised to stick to Tsai’s policy of maintaining the status quo, which avoids open declarations of independence while rejecting China’s sovereignty claims.
“As president, I have an important responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Lai said.
“I will act in accordance with our democratic and free constitutional order in a manner that is balanced and maintains the cross-strait status quo under the principles of dignity and parity,” he added.
Lai has said he hopes for a reopening of dialogue between China and Taiwan following almost eight years of Beijing’s near-complete refusal to communicate with leaders of the self-governing island.
“At the same time, we are also determined to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threats and intimidation from China,” he said.
Lai told the press conference that the Taiwanese people have “successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election”.
Warning against continued DPP rule, China has upped the pressure on Taiwan ahead of elections by flying balloons in the Taiwan Strait and threatening trade measures against Taipei, which accused Bejing of “economic coercion”.
“He [Lai] will carry on Tsai’s China approach: any dialogue with Beijing must be held with mutual respect and on an equal basis,” said Chang Chun-hao, professor of political science at Tunghai University in Taiwan.
“The bottom line remains Taiwan’s sovereignty which they [Lai and the DPP] seek to guarantee by rejecting the 1992 consensus,” Chang said.
The 1992 consensus refers to a tacit understanding between the Kuomintang (KMT) – which governed Taiwan at the time – and the Chinese Communist Party that both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge that there is “one China”, with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.
“Lai is looking to maintain the status quo … which [for the DPP] means China and Taiwan are two separate, sovereign nations,” said Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taiwan.
Meanwhile cross-strait relations would also depend on the government’s grip over parliament, which has greatly diminished with the election of numerous legislators from the KMT, Chang said.
Taiwan’s legislative election was held simultaneously with the presidential vote with results showing a split parliament with no single majority.
“The DPP performed quite badly in the legislative election, they’re going to meet heavy resistance from the blue party [KMT] in the next term of the Legislative Yuan,” Chang said.
The KMT won 39 out of 113 seats in parliament compared to the DPP’s 38.
“China, however, may find itself with new communication and exchange channels in Taiwan thanks to KMT legislators, which would help them in their goal of reunification,” he said
“This [split parliament] also means uncertainty for domestic politics, which may increase the US’s doubts about Taiwan,” he added.
While the tone for relations between Taiwan and China will partly be determined by Saturday’s outcome, the upcoming presidential election in the US will also play a huge role.
“The 2024 US election is also crucial to cross-strait relations, whether it be Biden’s re-election or Trump’s return to power … this will play a big part in geopolitics between the US, China and Taiwan,” Chang said.