Defying weeks of Chinese military intimidation, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui won a resounding victory Saturday in the first fully democratic presidential election ever held by a Chinese society.
The Taiwanese people voted “under threat” but “used their ballots to express their true love of this land,” Lee said in his victory speech Saturday night. “This is the most precious moment in our history.”
Even as China continued war games near Taiwan’s shores designed to dampen support for the territory’s sovereignty, voters handed incumbent President Lee 54 percent of the vote.
The second-place finish of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with 21 percent underscored voters’ defiance of Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics, which had brought Taiwan to the brink of military conflict with the mainland.
Lee’s share of the votes, added to the DPP’s 21 percent, showed three-quarters of the island’s voters favoring either outright independence or the president’s ambiguous policy of acting independently but holding open the distant possibility of reunification. Two parties that favored reunification with China were soundly defeated, taking only 10 percent and 15 percent of the vote. Turnout was high, with 76 percent of the electorate flocking to the polls.
While voters chose candidates on the question of Taiwan’s identity, there was a larger sense of pride in the chance to vote secretly for Taiwan’s leader.
Wei Chan-tung, a civil servant, relished the opportunity to criticize Lee as “not clever enough” to be president. His wife relished the fact that she voted differently from her husband. Wei also said she enjoyed not having to tell anyone who her choice was.
“I can choose the candidate I like for the first time in 4,000 years,” said Shao Zhi-ping, 38. “Democracy is the right way for all of China.”
The United States expressed satisfaction with the results.
“We congratulate the people of Taiwan on their first election,” a White House statement said. “They have made great strides in the past several years toward democracy.”
Beijing said Saturday that the Lee’s victory did not change Taiwan’s status as part of Chinese territory.
“Neither the changes in the way in which the Taiwan leaders are produced nor their result can change the fact that Taiwan is a part of China’s territory,” the official New China News Agency quoted a senior official of the government’s Taiwan Affairs Office as saying.
China’s hard-line attitude merely stiffened Taiwanese resolve, said government spokesman Charles Wu. “China has picked up a large rock only to drop it on its own feet,” laughed Wu, echoing one of Beijing’s favorite phrases. “Taiwanese people really hate those military threats and China’s emotional reactions.”
Lee and his Cabinet had maintained a guardedly defiant stance toward the mainland until Election Day. Friends of Lee say that the fiery leader felt personally affronted by China’s military exercises so close to Taiwan’s shores, and that his decisive win may strengthen his resolve to be tough with Beijing.
But one of the first post-victory statements signaled a thaw in relations.
“How to ease cross-strait tensions and rebuild a good base for interaction between the two sides should be the main issue after the election,” said Economics Minister Chiang Ping-kun on Saturday evening.
Given the stubbornness of both Beijing and Taipei, it may be up to the United States to help broker a post-election rapprochement, said an official from a nongovernmental organization that conducts indirect talks between Taiwan and China.
“Both sides will have pressure from the U.S. to go back to the table,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “But Washington won’t get involved in the details.”
Nevertheless, since the United States pledged to protect peace between the two countries when it recognized mainland China in place of Taiwan in 1979, it has found itself in the middle of a triangular diplomatic tangle.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers groups are standing by off Taiwan’s shores in case China escalates its military exercises, which are scheduled to end Monday. At the same time, officials in Washington are privately urging Lee not to further provoke China by accepting any invitations to the United States that members of Congress might extend to congratulate Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.