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Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s main opposition party will become the island’s first female president after the ruling Kuomintang conceded defeat in polls Saturday.
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% against 30% for Chu.
That would be the biggest ever win for any president in Taiwan — the previous record was 58.45% 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 crowds at the party’s headquarters in Taipei.
A source with Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said the party was working on Tsai’s victory speech. She was expected to speak within the hour.
Outside DPP headquarters, supporters cried for joy.
“The Taiwanese people despise the party that gets too close to China,” said Jeff Chang, 35.
Anita Lin, 37, said she was “thrilled”. “Taiwan’s future is not in China. It’s in the world.”
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.”
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”.
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.
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 apologize 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 defence and demanding answers from China and South Korea over her treatment.
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 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.