This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
President Tsai Ing-wen swept to a landslide victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections on Saturday after she vowed to defend the island’s way of life against threats, infiltration and saber-rattling by China.
“Together, we have protected this free land and this bastion of democracy,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai said as her Kuomintang (KMT) opponent Han Kuo-yu conceded defeat with a congratulatory phone call, ushering in her second term in office.
“Taiwan has shown the world how much we treasure our free and democratic way of life, and how much we cherish our nation: Taiwan, the Republic of China,” said Tsai, who beat Han by 8.17 million votes to 5.52 million, garnering more than 57 percent of the total vote, with an estimated turnout of 75 percent.
Tsai went into the election warning that Beijing’s ambition to rule the democratic island under the “one country, two systems” framework used in Hong Kong, would spell the end of its democratic way of life and its hard-won freedoms.
Just days before polling day, her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) used its majority in the island’s Legislative Yuan to pass a law banning Chinese infiltration and influence in Taiwan’s political life.
As well as thanking her supporters, Tsai thanked those who didn’t vote for her, promising to take on board their criticisms of her performance during her second term.
“I also want to thank all of our young people,” she said. “I know that some of you flew back from overseas just to vote for me, and other couldn’t get seats, so they stood on trains all the way back to the south to vote.”
Tsai, who has been a vocal supporter of mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since June, said the very act of marking the ballot paper was “the responsibility of democracy and the taste of freedom.”
The DPP also hung onto a slightly reduced majority in the Legislative Yuan elections, gaining 61 seats to the KMT’s 38.
Tsai also used her victory speech to set out her terms for talks with Taiwan’s powerful neighbor, China, which has refused to rule out the use of force to annex the island.
“The people of Taiwan hope that the international community can see our insistence on democratic values and respect for our national identity, and that Taiwan is treated fairly in terms of international participation,” Tsai said, in a reference to her foreign policy platform.
“Taiwan, Republic of China, is an indispensable member of the international community,” she said. “Countries should treat Taiwan as a partner, not as an issue.”
Tsai called on the Chinese Communist Party to treat the island as an equal and sovereign state, rather than insisting that it is an “inalienable” part of China.
“China must abandon threats of force against Taiwan,” she said, as well as accepting that the island’s fate would be decided by its 23 million people.
Only then could dialogue about the future relationship begin, she said.
“When our sovereignty and democracy are threatened with loud words, the people of Taiwan will be even louder in their insistence,” Tsai said. “I … hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation.”
The election followed half a year of protests in Hong Kong, which underscored to Taiwan’s voters the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model that China wants to use to rule Taiwan.
Tsai’s firm rejection of increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called on the island to “unify” with China, by force if necessary, appears to have reversed huge losses for the DPP in local elections 14 months ago.
Funding, fake news and disinformation
But she told journalists at a news conference that she expects pressure from China to continue, and even worsen.
“As the president of Taiwan, I must conduct cross-straits relations based on public opinion in Taiwan,” she said, adding: “We will do our part as a member of the international community, and we are committed to maintaining the status quo of stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Tsai repeatedly said that Taiwan’s 23 million people — who are ruled under the KMT-founded 1911 Republic of China that fled to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war — have no wish to give up their sovereignty.
During the campaign, security agencies and analysts revealed how China had poured funding, fake news and disinformation into Taiwan ahead of the crucial poll.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Taiwan “for once again demonstrating the strength of its robust democratic system, which—coupled with a free market economy and a vibrant civil society—makes it a model for the Indo-Pacific region and a force for good in the world.”
Pompeo also thanked Tsai for “her leadership in developing a strong partnership with the United States and applaud[ed] her commitment to maintaining cross-Strait stability in the face of unrelenting pressure.”
China’s Global Times newspaper, a tabloid linked to Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, struck an ominous warning note in an editorial on Saturday.
“Han lost the election, but the forces supporting him [are on the] rise,” the paper warned. “The fact that the Chinese mainland is getting increasingly stronger and the Taiwan island is getting weaker is an inevitable reality.”
Taiwan was part of Japan for 50 years before being handed back to the 1911 Republic of China at the end of World War II, and has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People’s Republic of China.
The country began a transition to democracy following the death of KMT supreme leader Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.