In Taiwan, Voters Choose President as China Tensions Loom

Taiwan’s vice president, Lai Ching-te, who has faced sustained hostility from China, won the island democracy’s presidential election on Saturday, a result that could prompt Beijing to step up pressure on Taiwan, deepening tensions with Washington.

For many of the millions of Taiwanese citizens who lined up at ballot booths on Saturday, the vote centered on the question of who should lead Taiwan in an increasingly tense standoff with its much larger, autocratic and heavily armed neighbor, China.

They chose Mr. Lai, of the governing Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., which wants to keep steering Taiwan away from Beijing’s influence, over the opposition Nationalist Party, which has vowed to expand trade ties and restart talks with China. After most of the votes had been counted, Mr. Lai’s main opponent, Hou Yu-ih of the opposition Nationalist Party conceded, apologizing to his supporters at a party event.

The election drew a strong voter turnout of nearly 70 percent. In the afternoon, the main parties held gatherings for supporters to watch as the votes were being counted after the polls closed at 4 p.m.

At the D.P.P.’s gathering outside its headquarters in Taipei, thousands of supporters, many of whom waved pink and green flags, cheered as Mr. Lai’s lead grew during the counting of the votes, which was displayed on a large screen on an outdoor stage. Many described feeling hopeful that a Lai presidency would protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and unique identity.

“I support Lai Ching-te because I believe he will uphold the democratic values of Taiwan,” said Huang I-hsuan, 45, a financial analyst who was at the gathering.

In some polling stations, lines began forming even before voting started in the morning, with many multigenerational families showing up in groups. Taiwanese citizens, who must vote in person, fanned out to reach nearly 18,000 polling stations in temples, churches, community centers and schools across the island.

Mr. Lai had been widely seen as the front-runner. But in the days leading up to the vote, the race was too close to call.

Mr. Hou, the Nationalist candidate, had narrowed Mr. Lai’s lead to only a few percentage points in many polls in recent weeks. He had promised to ease tensions with Beijing, arguing that stronger ties with China would help reduce the risk of conflict.

And Ko Wen-je, the Taiwan People’s Party’s candidate who had sought to appeal to voters fed up with the two established parties, despite falling in the polls, had continued to draw large numbers to his rallies, including nearly 200,000 people on Friday night.

One of Mr. Ko’s supporters, Jessica Chou, 25, said she thought that the D.P.P. had pushed Taiwan too close to Washington, and that she hoped the next leader would keep a distance from both the global powers.

“I’m worried about China, but I also think that we can’t always rely on the United States,” Ms. Chou said, as she came out of the school where she said she had voted for Mr. Ko. “I hope that Taiwan can find its own strategically advantageous position.”

On Friday night, the parties each held raucous election-eve rallies around Taiwan. In Chiayi, candidates from the three parties drove campaign vans around a large fountain at a circle in the city’s downtown, yelling slogans and urging people to vote.

Large crowds of supporters packed side streets around the circle, waving colorful banners and big balloons. The parade was festive, with candidate vans playing thumping club music, and several supporters dressed in inflatable dinosaur costumes for no apparent political reason.

Waving a small flag for the Nationalist Party at the rally in Chiayi, Wu Lee-shu, 60, a clothing store clerk, said she was concerned about Taiwan’s safety under the D.P.P. “I’ll vote for the Nationalist Party because I think it’s less likely that they would push Taiwan to war,” she said. “I’m worried about letting the other party take power, but I’ll respect the results of democracy.”

The candidates had also debated domestic issues such as housing and energy policy, and they traded accusations that their rivals engaged in shady land deals. But the issue of China overshadowed the election, as it always has.

Beijing asserts that the island of 23 million people about 100 miles off the Chinese coast is its territory. It has urged Taiwan to accept unification and refused to rule out the use of force, if China’s leaders decide it is necessary. The United States is by far Taiwan’s most important security backer, and has under Presidents Biden and Trump become more openly active in supporting the island against Chinese pressure.

Mr. Lai will now have a crucial say over Taiwan’s security and dealings with Beijing over the next four years, a period when some experts and U.S. military commanders have warned that the Chinese armed forces could be increasingly capable of an effective military assault on the island, roughly one hundred miles off the eastern Chinese coast.

Before Mr. Lai assumes the presidency in May, Taiwanese people — along with officials in Beijing and Washington — will be watching for any early signs of his approach to China, Taiwan’s biggest trading partner as well as a growing threat to its autonomy.

His party rejects Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, and the Chinese government has especially reviled Mr. Lai, who earlier in his career called himself a “practical worker” for Taiwan’s independence. Chinese officials, echoing Taiwanese opponents of Mr. Lai, have suggested that a victory for him would risk pushing Taiwan closer to war.

Mr. Lai’s win gives his party a third consecutive term in power, something no party had previously achieved since Taiwan adopted direct presidential elections in 1996. He has promised to stick with the approach of the current leader, President Tsai Ing-wen: keeping Beijing at arm’s length while seeking to avoid conflict, and strengthening ties with the United States and other democracies. Mr. Lai’s vice-presidential running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim — formerly Taiwan’s representative in Washington — is likely to work with Mr. Lai to continue that effort.

Since Ms. Tsai became president eight years ago, China has escalated military pressure on Taiwan. Chinese jets and warships regularly test Taiwan’s military, and that intimidation could increase, at least for a while, if Mr. Lai wins.