Taiwanese voters defy Beijing to elect Lai Ching-te as president

Ruling party candidate urges China to accept result and says he will not cross red line by declaring Taiwan an independent state

Lai Ching-te has won Taiwan’s presidential election as voters defied warnings from Beijing that choosing him would increase tensions with mainland China. Mr Lai, who is currently vice-president, defeated two rivals who wanted a closer relationship with Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

Mr Lai won more than 5.5 million votes, over 40 per cent of those cast and seven points ahead of Hou Yu-ih, the candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s main opposition party. Ko Wen-je from the smaller Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) trailed with 26 per cent, a better result than most analysts expected.

Mr Lai’s victory makes his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) the first party to win three successive presidential terms since Taiwan became a democracy in the 1990s. But the party was on course to lose its majority in the legislative yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, with Dr Ko’s TPP set to hold the balance of power between the two main parties.

Mr Hou and Dr Ko conceded defeat just four hours after the polls closed, and both men called Mr Lai to congratulate him. Addressing supporters afterwards, Mr Lai said it was time for the country to come together after the closely fought campaign.


“The elections have concluded today. All the conflicts and passions that were expressed during the campaign should also come to an end. The 23 million people of Taiwan are all one big family. Let us continue to work together with unity in order to move this country forward,” he said.

The president-elect has long been an advocate of Taiwanese independence but he said during the campaign that he would not cross Beijing’s most important red line by formally declaring Taiwan to be an independent state. In his victory speech to supporters, he struck a conciliatory tone.

“Under the principles of dignity and parity, we will use exchanges to replace obstructionism, dialogue to replace confrontation, and confidently pursue exchanges and co-operation with China. This furthers the wellbeing of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and achieves our objective of peace and common prosperity,” he said.

During Tsai Ing-wen’s eight years as president, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have risen as Beijing refused to engage with a leader it viewed as a separatist. Speaking to reporters later on Saturday, Mr Lai said he hoped that Beijing would change its approach following his election.

“President Tsai has been extending goodwill many times in the past eight years. However, China did not provide the response that should have been there. So in the future, we hope that China will recognise the new situation and understand that only peace benefits both sides of the strait,” he said.

“Global peace and stability depends upon the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, we hope that China will understand the situation, because China also has a responsibility.”

The result in Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary election will chart the trajectory of relations with China over the next four years.

At stake is the peace and stability of the island, 100 miles off the coast of China, that Beijing claims as its own and to be retaken by force if necessary.

China had called the election a choice between war and peace.

Beijing strongly opposed Mr Lai, who, along with Ms Tsai, reject China’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan, a former Japanese colony that split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949.

They have, however, offered to speak with Beijing, which has repeatedly refused to hold talks and called them separatists.

Apart from tensions with China, the election hinged on domestic issues, such as a slowed economy, housing affordability, a yawning gap between rich and poor and unemployment.

Beijing was believed to favour Mr Hou, from the more China-friendly nationalist party the KMT.

Mr Hou had promised to restart talks with China while bolstering national defence. He promised not to move toward unifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait if elected.

Mr Ko, of the TPP, had particularly drawn the support of young people wanting an alternative to the KMT and DPP, Taiwan’s traditional opposing parties, which have largely taken turns governing since the 1990s.

Mr Ko had also stated he wanted to speak with Beijing, and that his bottom line would be that Taiwan needs to remain democratic and free.

The US, which is bound by its laws to provide Taiwan with the weapons needed to defend itself, has pledged support for whichever government emerges, reinforced by the Biden administration’s plans to send an unofficial delegation made up of former senior officials to the island shortly after the election.

– Additional reporting: AP

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times