Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s main opposition party will become the island’s first female president in a landslide victory over the ruling Kuomintang on Saturday, as voters turned their backs on closer China ties.
KMT candidate Eric Chu conceded defeat in a disastrous rout for the party, addressing tearful crowds at the party’s headquarters in Taipei.
The vote count is continuing but live television figures from polling stations show Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has secured a historic landslide victory, with around 60 per cent against 30 per cent for Chu.
That would be the biggest ever win for any president in Taiwan — the previous record was 58.45 per cent for current KMT president Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.
“I’m sorry… We’ve lost. The KMT has suffered an election defeat. We haven’t worked hard enough and we failed voters’ expectations,” said KMT candidate Eric Chu addressing tearful crowds at the party’s headquarters in Taipei.
Chu also said the KMT had lost its parliamentary majority, the first time it has ever lost control of the island’s legislature.
“This is an unprecedented drastic change for the KMT,” he said.
Support for Tsai has surged as voters have become increasingly uneasy about a recent rapprochement with China under Ma, who must step down after a maximum two terms.
As the economy stagnates, many are frustrated that trade pacts signed with the mainland have failed to benefit ordinary Taiwanese.
The DPP has a much warier approach to China, although Tsai has repeatedly said she wants to maintain the “status quo”.
“We want to congratulate the DPP’s victory, this is the Taiwan people’s mandate,” Chu said.
He bowed deeply in a sign of apology and declared his resignation as chairman of the party.
Jubilant crowds gathered at the DPP headquarters in Taipei, where Tsai was due to speak later Saturday.
Vendors were selling everything from cups to key chains bearing Tsai’s image.
One small group held up a banner saying: “Taiwan is not part of China. Support Taiwan independence.”
“China has no right to claim Taiwan and we want to say that to the world,” said one member of the group, Angela Shi, who returned from San Francisco to vote.
Tsai has walked a careful path on her China strategy, but the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party and opponents say Tsai will destabilise relations.
Ma has overseen a dramatic rapprochement with China since coming to power in 2008.
Although Taiwan is self-ruling after it split with China following a civil war in 1949, it has never declared independence and Beijing still sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification.
The thaw culminated in a summit between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.
Yet despite more than 20 deals and a tourist boom, closer ties have exacerbated fears that China is eroding Taiwan’s sovereignty by making it economically dependent.
Low salaries and high housing prices are also riling voters.
Beijing has warned it will not deal with any leader who does not recognise the “one China” principle, part of a tacit agreement between Beijing and the KMT known as the “1992 consensus”.
The DPP has never recognised the consensus.
Observers say it is unlikely Tsai will do anything to provoke Beijing if she wins.
Analysts also agree there will not be any immediate backlash from China, as alienating Taiwan would play against Beijing’s ultimate aim of reunification.
In the latest cross-strait drama, the plight of a teenage Taiwanese K-pop star dominated local news coverage, with presidential candidates drawn into the row.
Chou Tzu-yu, 16, of girl-band TWICE who is based in South Korea, was forced to apologise after sparking online criticism in China for waving Taiwan’s official flag in a recent Internet broadcast.
Her remorseful video went viral within hours, with Tsai, Chu, and President Ma all leaping to her defence on Saturday and demanding answers from China and South Korea over her treatment.