The Taiwanese politician Lai Ching-te has for years been reviled by China’s Communist Party as a dangerous foe who, by its account, could drag the two sides into a war by pressing for full independence for his island democracy. Right up to Saturday, when millions of Taiwanese voted for their next president, an official Beijing news outlet warned that Mr. Lai could take Taiwan “on a path of no return.”
Yet, despite China’s months of menacing warnings of a “war or peace” choice for Taiwan’s voters, Mr. Lai was elected president.
Mr. Lai, currently Taiwan’s vice president, secured 40 percent of the votes in the election, giving his Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., a third term in a row in the presidential office. No party has achieved more than two successive terms since Taiwan began holding direct, democratic elections for its president in 1996.
At a D.P.P. gathering outside its headquarters in Taipei, thousands of supporters, many waving pink and green flags, cheered as Mr. Lai’s lead grew during the counting of the votes, which was displayed on a large screen on an outdoor stage.
Addressing his supporters at the event, Mr. Lai called for unity, while also pledging his commitment to defending Taiwan’s identity. “Between democracy and authoritarianism, we choose to stand on the side of democracy,” Mr. Lai said. “This is what this election campaign means to the world.”
The vote drew a strong voter turnout of 72 percent, including many who had flown home from abroad. In some polling stations, lines began forming even before voting started in the morning, with many multigenerational families showing up in groups. Taiwanese citizens, who must vote in person, fanned out to reach nearly 18,000 polling stations in temples, churches, community centers and schools across the island.
Many of Mr. Lai’s supporters described feeling hopeful that he would protect Taiwan’s sovereignty, and do so carefully.
“I voted for Lai Ching-te because I think he can handle the relationship with China wisely,” said Hsu Ya-hsuan, 28, a product manager at a technology company in Taipei who attended the celebration at the D.P.P. headquarters in Taipei. “He is an experienced political figure, and I believe he will not deliberately provoke China, but can handle the relationship with it cautiously.”
For Mr. Lai, now, though, comes the even harder task of governing at a dangerous and potentially divisive time for Taiwan.
Mr. Lai faces a ring of challenges when he takes office in May. China’s response to his victory will be the most pressing and important, but far from the only one. Mr. Lai will also confront a domestic political scene notably less hospitable than the one that Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, has enjoyed for her eight years in office. His party lost its majority in the legislature, posing a challenge to his ability to advance his agenda.
“Internally, there won’t be any honeymoon period for him,” said Jason Hsu, a former member of Taiwan’s legislature for the Nationalist Party who is now a Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. “Externally, he’s likely to face stronger pressure and aggression from China both militarily and economically.”
Mr. Lai is not the reckless firebrand that Beijing has depicted, say Taiwanese politicians who know him; nor is war over Taiwan imminent or inevitable, say many officials and experts. Mr. Lai campaigned on a theme of continuity with the policies of Ms. Tsai, who has sought to build up Taiwan’s military defenses and deepen relations with the United States and other democracies, while avoiding a total rupture with China.
But even if Mr. Lai sticks faithfully to that course, he may face a searing test of his political and diplomatic skills to keep Taiwan secure and united against deepening pressure from China. Mr. Lai will be Taiwan’s president during a time when, some U.S. officials have warned, China will be increasingly ready to try to seize or subdue Taiwan, which it sees as its lost territory, by armed force.
In its first response to Mr. Lai’s victory, the Chinese government office for Taiwan affairs said the election outcome showed that the “Democratic Progressive Party does not represent mainstream opinion on the island,” the official Xinhua news agency reported. The statement indicated that Beijing would reach out to other Taiwanese political parties and groups, as it already does, “to encourage cross-strait exchanges and cooperation.”
The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, issued a congratulatory statement to Mr. Lai and said that the United States looked forward to working with him and other Taiwanese leaders. “We also congratulate the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process,” Mr. Blinken said in the statement.
In the coming months, Beijing may press Mr. Lai through trade restrictions on Taiwanese products, poaching one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, or through military exercises. China will be studying what he says when he is inaugurated as president in May.
“Even if Lai Ching-te sticks to Tsai Ing-wen’s line, this will not change Xi Jinping’s thinking on speeding up its pace to solve the ‘Taiwan problem,’” said Kuo Yu-jen, a political science professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan. “The intensity of his pressure on Lai Ching-te’s new government will be greater than that of Tsai Ing-wen’s eight years in power.”
Taiwan is also facing uncertainty in its relations with the United States. The United States has vowed continued support for Taiwan, including weapons sales, in the face of pressure from China. But Washington is also burdened with the wars in Ukraine and Middle East. The U.S. presidential election in November could bring more changes for Taiwan.
Mr. Lai must also deal with a more complicated and divided domestic political landscape than the current president, Tsai Ing-wen. Mr. Lai’s two chief rivals scored sizable shares of the vote, a fact that may weaken his aura of authority. Ms. Tsai, who must step down after two terms as president, won over 50 percent of the votes in 2016 and 2020.
Mr. Hou won 33.5 percent of the votes cast, according to Taiwan’s Central Election Commission. Ko Wen-je, of the upstart Taiwan People’s Party, drew 26.5 percent of votes — a warning to both established parties that Mr. Ko has tapped into public frustration with rising housing costs, narrowing career prospects and slow income growth, especially among his young supporters.
One of Mr. Ko’s supporters, Jessica Chou, 25, said she thought that the D.P.P. had pushed Taiwan too close to Washington, and that she hoped the next leader would keep a distance from both the global powers.
“I’m worried about China, but I also think that we can’t always rely on the United States,” Ms. Chou said, as she came out of the school where she said she had voted for Mr. Ko. “I hope that Taiwan can find its own strategically advantageous position.”
Mr. Lai’s party lost its majority in Taiwan’s 113-member legislature, called the Legislative Yuan. No party commanded a majority, which would require at least 57 seats. The Nationalist Party will hold 52 seats, one more than the D.P.P., and the Taiwan People’s Party holds a potential powerful swing vote with eight seats. Two other lawmakers have no party affiliation.
Noting the reversals to his party, Mr. Lai told reporters that he would reach out to opposition parties to get their ideas for dealing with Taiwan’s problems.
“The election outcome tells that the people expect a capable government along with effective checks and balances,” Mr. Lai told reporters. “We fully understand this new public sentiment and totally respect it.”
Ahead of the vote, the Nationalists and Taiwan People’s Party had attempted to form an alliance, only to fail spectacularly. Still, they are likely to use their increased numbers of lawmakers to press Mr. Lai on domestic issues and potentially embarrassing policy mistakes under Ms. Tsai, said Mr. Hsu, the former lawmaker now at Harvard.
“Without a majority, there will have to be a lot of compromises,” he said. “He may have huge obstacles in getting policies approved by the Legislative Yuan.”
The result capped a week of daily campaign events, raucous gatherings in which Taiwan’s citizens pour on to the streets in parades and concert-like rallies, a testament to how much the island’s separate identity from the mainland is underpinned by its commitment to democracy.
In Chiayi on Friday night, large crowds of supporters packed side streets around the circle, waving colorful banners and big balloons. The parade was festive, with candidate vans playing thumping club music, and several supporters dressed in inflatable dinosaur costumes for no apparent political reason.
Waving a small flag for the Nationalist Party at the rally in Chiayi, Wu Lee-shu, 60, a clothing store clerk, said she was concerned about Taiwan’s safety under the D.P.P., but cherished the chance to vote.
“I’ll vote for the Nationalist Party because I think it’s less likely that they would push Taiwan to war,” she said. “I’m worried about letting the other party take power, but I’ll respect the results of democracy.”