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Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen announces her election victory to the media at their party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan January 16, 2016.DAMIR SAGOLJ/Reuters

Voters in Taiwan have rejected the party that has ruled their island for most of the last seven decades and handed a sweeping presidential victory to Tsai Ing-wen, a former lawyer and professor who has promised a better economic future and less deference to China.

Ms. Tsai, 59, will become the first modern female head of a Chinese-majority nation, and her landslide victory marks a generational shift in Taiwan, a thriving democracy whose people increasingly sees themselves as distinct from the mainland.

In her first remarks as president-elect, she on Saturday night warned China against harassing Taiwan, firing back at the mainland's treatment of a young pop star who incurred Chinese wrath for holding the Republic of China flag that is used in Taiwan.

"Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations," she said.

She pledged to "maintain the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait," but also to protect "this country's sovereignty." Holding a flag "is a right of the Taiwanese people, and it should be normal and this is something that the international audience should respect."

Ms. Tsai took nearly 6.9-million votes, compared to 3.8-million for rival Eric Chu, who sought to continue the rule of his Kuomintang party. The 56 per cent of the vote she won gives her the second-biggest margin of victory since Taiwan's first presidential election in 1996.

"We lost. The Nationalists have been defeated," Mr. Chu said as he ceded the election with a bow and an apology to his supporters.

The DPP was also set to take a majority in the legislature for the first time, giving it a power to reshape Taiwan it has never before possessed.

"Today, the Taiwanese people have used their ballots to make history," Ms. Tsai said. "We look forward to the arrival of an era of new politics in Taiwan."

The New Power Party, a "third force" challenger led by a former student activist, also looked set for a handful of seats that would elevate youthful advocates to the legislature from the margins of political protest.

After a failed presidential bid in 2012, Ms. Tsai, a cerebral former trade negotiator, successfully broadened her electoral appeal by polishing presentation skills and opening her political tent to business leaders and civil society activists.

She promised to change the way Taiwan's government operates, pledging more responsiveness to popular demands even as she committed to boosting the economy by promoting innovation and decreasing reliance on mainland China.

Hu Ching-chien, a 32-year-old engineer, was among those who came out under sunny skies in Taipei Saturday to vote for Ms. Tsai. "I feel I have finally accomplished something for Taiwan, so that Taiwan will have greater autonomy," he said. "If there was no change, Taiwan would become just another part of China."

A large banner outside DPP election headquarters Saturday declared: "Taiwan is NOT Part of China! Support Taiwan Independence."

The pervasiveness of that sentiment among many who voted for Ms. Tsai has raised anxieties on and off the island about a return to fraught relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province, and has said it is prepared to use force to ensure it stays part of "one China." But Beijing struck a moderate note Saturday, when an unnamed spokesman from the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office said, according to state media: "We have already made clear that we will not intervene in Taiwan's elections. What we are concerned is cross-Straits relations."

The past eight years have seen relative cross-straits calm under the leadership of Ma Ying-jeou, after a series of prior crises raised the threat of conflict between China and Taiwan, who the U.S. has promised to backstop.

Mr. Ma sought warmer ties with China and, last fall, met China's Xi Jinping, becoming the first Taiwanese president to sit down with a leader of Communist China. Mr. Ma's tenure was, however, marked by single-digit approval ratings and student-led protests that in 2014 shut down the legislature amid anger over a trade pact with China.

Ms. Tsai's DPP has historically leaned toward independence, and she has raised concern in China because of her history as co-author of a "two-state" doctrine that enraged Beijing nearly two decades ago.

"We are entering new territory," said Richard Bush, the former head of the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan who is now director of the Brooking Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Beijing's distrust of Ms. Tsai raises the spectre "of a downward spiral" in cross-strait relations, he said.

The trend on the island appears to be toward "a fear of mainland intentions and anxiety about being too dependent on China and fear of being on a slippery slope toward unification and domination," he said.

If that persists, it could herald an enduring change in Taiwan and secure the DPP "a dominant position in the political system in a way that it never had before," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Ma's Kuomintang, or KMT, party has been the commanding force in modern Taiwanese politics, holding executive authority for all but eight years since taking control in 1945. But it has never before lost control of the legislature, and, hours before voters headed to the polls, it assembled some of its senior figures to darkly intone that a Tsai presidency will lead toward dangerous turbulence.

"It's very important for us to make sure that we take our country towards peace not war," said Chao Chun-shan, the chairman of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies who accompanied Mr. Ma to his meeting with the Chinese president.

At an election eve KMT rally, throngs of cheering supporters gathered under a light drizzle, where they were told "support for the KMT is support for Taiwan stability."

Alfa Tsou, 60, who owns a toy factory in Shanghai, led eight busloads of people to the rally. Taiwan's future is tightly intertwined with the mainland, and angering Beijing is reckless, he said. He sees unification as more likely than independence.

"Would Canada recognize it if Taiwan was to declare its independence?" he asked. "It's impossible."

Others see China's heavy-handed state model as better than their own democracy, which has been plagued by allegations of vote-buying and corruption. "I support unification" with China, said Chiang Cheng-hsien, 32, an engineer who voted KMT Saturday.

He would prefer "authoritarian rule, just like mainland China. … The rule of law should come first. But that's not the case in Taiwan. It's just chaotic."

But many here entered voting booths Saturday with a very different worry: that rising Chinese influence is endangering their autonomy and sense of self, a fear crystallized by China's treatment of the young Taiwanese pop star.

Chou Tzuyu, 16, a member of a South Korean girl group, was labelled a "pro-Taiwanese independence" activist after she was filmed holding the Republic of China flag. Outrage flared in the mainland and Chinese electronics giant Huawei demanded Ms. Chou be dropped from endorsements of its phones. The entertainment company she works for cancelled her appearances in China.

She apologized in a video that was widely viewed in Taiwan on Saturday. In it, she bows low, declares herself Chinese and says with a quivering voice that "there is only one China, Taiwan and China are part of the same country."

Recorded against a bare wall, the apology drew comparisons to an Islamic State hostage video, and a rebuke from Mr. Ma, the outgoing president who was the architect of mainland rapprochement.

On a day voters broadly rejected his party, Mr. Ma was left to criticize China, the country he spent his years in office courting.

Ms. Chou's flag "should not have offended anyone," Mr. Ma said. "And now she has been forced to apologize. I think this is wrong and we cannot accept this."

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