TAIPEI (CNN) — Taiwan appears to have its first female President, in a landmark election that could unsettle relations with Beijing.
Eric Chu, the Nationalist Party candidate in Taiwan’s presidential election conceded defeat late Saturday and congratulated rival Tsai Ing-wen to her victory as the country’s new President, state-run Central News Agency reported.
Her supporters filled streets, waving party banners and cheering to victory announcements made from a stage.
Official election results have not yet been announced.
Voters lined up Saturday at polling stations, and when they closed, surveys suggested that Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), would win the presidential vote by a significant margin after eight years under the government of the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party.
The ruling party was also in danger of losing control of the legislature for the first time in parliamentary elections, with a record 556 candidates in the race for 113 seats.
The DPP has traditionally leaned in favor of independence for the island from mainland China, which could anger Beijing, which views Taiwan as an integral part of its territory that is to be taken by force if necessary. Beijing has missiles pointed at the island.
“I voted for DPP, because it’s very critical time for the Taiwan people. We have our own democracy systems, we will not be influenced by China,” said Tsai Cheng-an, a 55-year-old Taipei professor.
The KMT forged closer ties with China under President Ma Ying-jeou, which recently drew street protests. The new president will take over from Ma, who will step down on May 20 after serving two four-year terms.
China and Taiwan — officially the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — separated in 1949 following the Communist victory on the mainland in the civil war.
The two sides have been governed separately since, though a shared cultural and linguistic heritage mostly endures — with Mandarin spoken as the official language in both places.
“I voted for KMT because they are less likely to provoke cross-strait troubles. They want peace. That’s why I chose them. We’ve lived through war, and it was not easy,” said Chen, 83, a military veteran who declined to give his full name.
Taiwan’s freewheeling democracy stands in sharp contrast to China’s one-party state, and a cast of colorful candidates are contesting seats — they include an ex-convict, an alleged spy and the front man of Asia’s biggest death metal band.
Tsai, a soft-spoken U.S.-educated lawyer, is viewed as a pragmatic leader but will have her work cut out balancing the interests of China, which is the island’s biggest trading partner, the United States, its key ally, and the diverse demands of the island’s 23 million residents.
In particular, a younger generation fears a future under the influence of Beijing and doesn’t want Taiwan to become another Chinese territory.
“Taiwanese people are very peaceful. We want a peaceful relationship with mainland China, but that shouldn’t mean we have to sacrifice our way of life and our democracy,” said Huang Kuo-chang, leader of the New Power Party, one of a number of smaller opposition parties.
His party emerged from 2014’s “Sunflower Movement,” when scores of student protesters stormed and occupied Taiwan’s Legislature and Cabinet building to object to a trade pact that symbolized Taiwan’s deepening relations with mainland China.
The economy is a particular concern for many young people, with unemployment standing at 12% among 20- to 24-year-olds — three times the national average, according to official statistics.
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