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Taiwan elects a new president from the ruling party amid tensions with China

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, has been elected president of the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

SIMON: The outcome of the election is key for Taiwan's relationship with the U.S. and China, of course, which wants to control Taiwan through military force if necessary. NPR's Emily Feng is in Taipei at DPP party headquarters. Emily, thanks for being with us.

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Hey, Scott.

SIMON: What's the significance of a Lai victory?

FENG: Well, this was a clear victory for him. It was a very close one. And he won largely by appealing to this pro-Taiwan, anti-China base of voters. And because he won, that means Taiwan's stance towards China and also towards the U.S., which is the island's most important security guarantor, will largely stay the same. Now, Lai comes from the political establishment. He's actually currently the vice president. And he's from the DPP, which is this party that's flirted with the idea of formally declaring Taiwan as an independent country. He's also helped Taiwan branch out internationally, building up these diplomatic partnerships, even though most of the world does not formally recognize Taiwan as a nation.

And therefore, Beijing has made no secret that it hates Lai. His running mate, Bi-khim Hsiao, who - which is Taiwan's next vice president, has already been sanctioned by China. And Beijing has said repeatedly voting for Lai would be choosing war with China. However, so far, China's been pretty restrained in its rhetoric about the Taiwan elections. And there's no indication they want to escalate tensions at this stage. Lai from Taiwan just spoke to the press, and he committed himself to maintaining the status quo on cross-strait relations while also pursuing dialogue with China.

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PRESIDENT-ELECT WILLIAM LAI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He said he had responsibility to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait. But he would also use exchanges to replace obstructionism, use dialogue instead of confrontation and confidently pursue cooperation with China. But he was determined to safeguard Taiwan from threats and intimidation from Beijing.

SIMON: Emily, you mentioned the closeness of the margin. What kind of mandate does Mr. Lai have?

FENG: He doesn't have a very clear one because Taiwan's system is a first past the post system, meaning you do not need a majority to win as president. And Lai only about 40% of the popular vote. So that diminishes his authority a bit. His party, the DPP, has just secured a historic third term in the president's office. This has not happened before in Taiwan's admittedly very short democratic history. But the DPP does not have a majority in the legislature anymore, so it's going to have to negotiate with two other opposition parties which made these big legislative gains. And that means gridlock for the next four years. The other two parties could very easily hold up policies that Lai's office proposals on, say, national defense or other budget priorities, introducing delays in policies that Taiwan might not have when it comes to deterring China.

SIMON: Emily, what can you foresee after Mr. Lai takes office?

FENG: Well, he is coming into office in a highly divided Taiwanese society. They're divided along lines of identity, whether they feel more Taiwanese or if they still feel culturally Chinese, and also divided along perspectives about how to best deter China. But the biggest priority for him is going to still be domestic, you know, the bread-and-butter issues that voters voted on, like the economy and housing prices - familiar, probably, for most American voters.

Also, Lai has a really long lame duck period coming up. He's not going to be sworn in as the new president until late May. So there's a lot that can happen before then. For example, China could, in theory, escalate its intimidation of Taiwan by cutting off more trade with the island, by ramping up its now-daily military saber rattling, which it does by flying its fighter jets and sailing navy boats around the island.

But I also want to end on a more positive note, which is this is only Taiwan's eighth-ever direct presidential election. I watched voting happen. I watched the votes being counted publicly. It was carried out smoothly, transparently and quickly. People who lost conceded gracefully, vowing to work with Lai. About 75% of people turned out. So you have a very engaged population here who cares about democracy, even if they don't always agree with one another.

SIMON: NPR's Emily Feng speaking with us from DPP party headquarters in Taipei. Emily, thanks so much for being with us.

FENG: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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