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Supporters of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party celebrate at an election day rally in Taipei. The party's candidate, Lai Ching-te, won the presidency with around 40 per cent of the vote.

Supporters of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party celebrate at an election day rally in Taipei. The party's candidate, Lai Ching-te, won the presidency with about 40 per cent of the vote.James Griffiths

After Taiwan’s voters defied China to elect the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to a historic third consecutive presidential term, many on the island and elsewhere were waiting this weekend to see if Beijing’s disapproval would go beyond the expected angry statements, issued hours after Lai Ching-te declared victory.

Chen Binhua, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Beijing would “firmly oppose the separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ as well as foreign interference.”

Pointing to Mr. Lai’s 40-per-cent vote share – the second lowest for a victorious candidate in Taiwan’s history – Mr. Chen said the DPP “cannot represent the mainstream public opinion” in Taiwan.

But Beijing’s preferred party won even less support: Just one-third of all ballots were cast for the opposition Kuomintang, the only major party to support eventual unification with China. The KMT failed to win over a significant number of swing voters, even after running a moderate campaign that rejected Beijing’s model for absorbing Taiwan and amid widespread dissatisfaction with the DPP.

Mr. Lai said the result showed that faced with the choice between democracy and authoritarianism, Taiwan “stands on the side of democracy.” This is the first time that a party has won three consecutive presidential elections.

As President, he said he would “maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” and not challenge the status quo. Mr. Lai promised to safeguard Taiwan “from continuing threats and intimidation” while pursuing exchanges and co-operation with China.

Lai I-chung, head of the Prospect Foundation, a Taipei think tank, said Beijing’s reaction showed that the president-elect would not enjoy any grace period from a China apparently intent on undermining him from the outset.

“This is their way to say to the world that [Chinese] President Xi Jinping’s view towards Taiwan is correct,” he said.

Beijing regards Taiwan as its sovereign territory and has threatened military action in order to achieve “reunification.” Under Mr. Xi, China has ramped up diplomatic, trade and military pressure against Taiwan, including firing missiles into its waters and staging large-scale war games around the island at periods of high tension.

Hours before polls opened Saturday, Chinese fighter jets buzzed Taiwan, and the People’s Liberation Army vowed to “smash” any move toward formal independence by the self-ruled island.

In a statement Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Mr. Lai, and said Washington was “committed to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability, and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure.” Speaking to reporters outside the White House, President Joe Biden reiterated that the U.S. “does not support Taiwan independence.”

China’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Blinken’s comments sent “a gravely wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces” and urged the U.S. not to have “interactions of an official nature with Taiwan.” Several Chinese embassies around the world issued similar responses to statements by their host governments congratulating Mr. Lai.

Canada was among the countries doing so, with the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei, Ottawa’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, saying in a statement on Sunday that “at a time when threats to democracy are growing around the world, the fact that millions of Taiwanese people came out to vote should be cause for celebration.”

In December, Canada and Taiwan signed a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, after years of negotiations. The trade office said Ottawa looked forward to working with Mr. Lai’s government “to further strengthen ties with Taiwan in trade, investment, science and technology, culture and people-to-people exchanges.”

Taiwan has never been controlled by the Communist Party and spent large portions of its history outside of Chinese rule. According to polls, most Taiwanese people do not identify as Chinese, and only a small minority supports eventual unification with China.

Indeed, there was broad consensus among major parties on maintaining the current status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and relations with China were not the primary issue in this campaign, with voters focused more on the economy.

This was evidenced by the rise of the Taiwan People’s Party, whose candidate Ko Wen-je promised to address housing issues and inequality, winning 26 per cent of the vote. The TPP also secured eight legislative seats, meaning it will likely hold the balance of power in the new parliament, where no party won a majority. The DPP won legislative majorities in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

While Taiwan’s economy has grown under the DPP, the benefits have not been equally felt, and young people in particular struggled during the COVID pandemic. At final rallies in the campaign, DPP officials sometimes failed to make a strong case on the economic front, focusing far more on the threat from China.

In his victory speech, Mr. Lai said the DPP’s loss of its legislative majority showed “we did not work hard enough and there are areas where we must humbly review and look back on.” He promised to co-operate with other parties and suggested he could invite some opposition figures to join his cabinet.

Chen Ming-chi, an associate professor at National Tsinghua University, said Mr. Lai will likely struggle to pass a budget in the divided legislature, and could face hearings and obstruction from the opposition.

“It will be a big challenge,” he said. “It’s going to be painful.”

He said the DPP will have to do something to win back young voters ahead of local elections in two years, or risk continuing to bleed support to the TPP. But he added that given the strong anti-incumbent sentiment and Mr. Lai’s framing of himself as essentially a third term for outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s success should not be underestimated.

Mr. Lai outperformed polls that had put him at around 35 per cent of the vote, and the DPP also increased its share of proportional “party list” seats, which make up about a third of the 113-strong parliament and are seen as a measure of a given party’s national popularity.

The KMT’s vote share, meanwhile, was largely stagnant, suggesting it has hit a ceiling in its level of support, Mr. Chen said. During the campaign, the party struggled to triangulate between its more conservative, pro-unification base, and winning over swing voters who do not support closer ties with China.

Candidate Hou Yu-ih promised not to touch “the unification issue” if elected and endorsed parts of the foreign policy of Ms. Tsai, the current President, but he was damaged by an interview former KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou gave last week in which he suggested Taiwan could not defend itself against China and should put its trust in Mr. Xi.

Mr. Chen said that “down the road, I see less opportunity for the KMT, it will become less and less influential in Taiwanese politics.”

This would be both a repudiation of Taiwan’s traditional party of government, and China, which made clear it favours the KMT. The TPP, which Mr. Ko said had ushered in “three-party politics” after Saturday’s results, does not support unification, though it favours better relations with Beijing and has accused the DPP of fostering conflict.

On Sunday, it was not clear how far China would go in expressing its displeasure. In the past, Beijing has launched missiles into Taiwan’s waters and staged large-scale war games around the island.

“It probably won’t take long for Beijing to register its anger over the result, and its response could be swift and severe,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Xi Jinping’s urgency for reunification, amid numerous domestic crises, may lead to intensified military drills, new trade restrictions on Taiwanese companies, and heightened cyberattacks on Taiwanese infrastructure, all of which will pose significant obstacles for the new government,” he said.

Arthur Ding, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, predicted such action may ramp up ahead of Mr. Lai’s inauguration in May. But while he expected tensions to increase, this did not mean the two sides were headed for war.

“The coercive approach will continue and probably intensify, but the likelihood of an all-out invasion is very low,” he said, adding “at this stage, we don’t see any strategic warnings or logistical preparations” for such an action, which would be the largest aquatic assault in history, dwarfing the D-Day landings.

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