TAIPEI: Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s main opposition party was on course for a landslide election victory Saturday, a win that would make her the island’s first female president as voters turn their backs on closer China ties.
With more than half the votes counted, Tsai of the Beijing-wary Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was ahead with 58.1 percent, according to a live count from polling stations by Taiwan’s FTV.
Eric Chu of the ruling China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) was trailing in second on 32.5 percent.
Veteran conservative candidate James Soong of the People First Party was third with 9.4 percent.
Support for Tsai has surged as voters have become increasingly uneasy about a recent rapprochement with China under KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, 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 more cautious approach to China, although Tsai has repeatedly said she wants to maintain the “status quo”.
Crowds were gathering at the DPP’s headquarters in Taipei Saturday evening where vendors sold 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.
“Taiwan needs change, economically and politically,” said a 65-year-old voter at a polling station in Taipei earlier in the day, who gave his name as Lee.
“The government leaned too easily on China.”
But others in the KMT stronghold of New Taipei City voiced concern.
“You know her position on cross-strait ties—if she cannot properly handle the issues and tensions escalate, no-one will benefit,” said shop owner Yang Chin-chun, 78.
Tsai has walked a careful path on her China strategy, but the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party and opponents say she will destabilize relations.
Current KMT president 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.
In the latest cross-strait drama, the plight of a teenage Taiwanese K-pop star dominated local news coverage Saturday, 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 Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou all leaping to her defense and demanding answers from China and South Korea over her treatment.
Beijing has warned it will not deal with any leader who does not recognize the “one China” principle, part of a tacit agreement between Beijing and the KMT known as the “1992 consensus”.
The DPP has never recognized 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.
“Relations will be more complicated and less predictable. They will deteriorate to some extent but at the same time Beijing’s interest is to keep Taiwan as dependent economically,” said political analyst Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
There are also parliamentary elections Saturday, with the KMT risking the loss of its majority in the legislature.