By ELAINE KURTENBACH and JOHNSON LAI
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Early results from Taiwanese television networks and the Election Commission showed President Tsai Ing-wen leading her closest challenger, Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist Party, in Saturday’s presidential election, possibly putting her on the way to winning a second term.
The mood was jubilant at the headquarters of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei, the capital, with supporters cheering as her tally climbed. At a gathering in Kaohsiung, where Han is mayor, it was much grimmer, with some wiping away tears as the vote count showed Tsai holding a solid lead.
With 10.5% of precincts reporting, results from the Central Election Commission showed Tsai with 57.96% of the votes and Han with 38.34%. TV networks reported that Tsai was ahead in almost all major cities.
The self-governing island was expected to know later Saturday whether Tsai had triumphed with her tough stance toward China.
Taiwan has developed its own identity since separating from China during civil war in 1949 but has never declared formal independence. Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island of 23 million people and threatens to use force to seize control if necessary.
Han voted in Kaohsiung, where he is mayor. A third-party candidate, James Soong, also ran but had virtually no chance of winning.
“I hope every citizen can come out and vote,” Tsai said after casting her vote in Taipei. “You should exercise your rights to make democracy stronger in Taiwan.”
For many in Taiwan, months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, have driven home the contrast between their democratically governed island and authoritarian, communist-ruled mainland China.
Tsai portrayed the election as a chance to protect Taiwan’s democracy.
“Let us tell the world with our own votes that Taiwanese are determined to defend sovereignty, determined to guard democracy and determined to persist in reforms,” she said at a rally late Friday.
The Nationalist Party’s Han has said Taiwan should be more open to negotiations with China, in contrast to Tsai, who has dismissed Beijing’s overtures. At his last rally, attended by hundreds of thousands of people in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, he focused on practical issues such as improving education and the economy.
“I want to attract massive investments. I want products to be exported nonstop,” he said.
The Hong Kong protests have undermined support in Taiwan for the “one country, two systems” approach Beijing has championed for governing both that former British colony and Taiwan.
Fears of Chinese interference in Taiwan’s politics and an uptick in the economy helped Tsai regain an edge after a dire electoral setback for her Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, 14 months ago.
“The reason why I vote for her is for upholding the value of Taiwan’s freedom and democracy and that should not be affected by the other side of the strait (China),” Lucy Ting, a college student, said at Tsai’s rally on Friday.
The Nationalists have struggled to find candidates who can fire up their pro-China supporters and win over young Taiwanese who increasingly favor the DPP.
A second term for Tsai is expected to draw more diplomatic, economic and military pressure from Beijing on the island, in a continuation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s campaign to compel her administration to endorse its insistence that Taiwan is a part of China.
Tsai has refused to do so, maintaining that Beijing has no claim over Taiwan, although her government has repeatedly called for the reopening of talks between the sides without preconditions.
Since its transition to full democracy beginning in the 1980s, Taiwan has increasingly asserted its independent identity from China even though it is not recognized by the United Nations or any major nation.
The island of more than 23 million people exercises all the roles of a sovereign nation, issuing its own passports, maintaining its own military and legal system and serving as a crucial hub in the global high-tech supply chain.
If reelected, Tsai will face challenges in trying to reform the government and economy and push through unpopular cuts in generous civil service pensions.
Associated Press journalists Ken Moritsugu, Tassanee Vejpongsa, Emily Wang and Yves Dam Van contributed to this report. Taijing Wu in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, also contributed.
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