Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as chairwoman of the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after it suffered a major electoral defeat on Saturday, losing two of the island’s most important city posts in mayoral elections.
The results of the polls, being held just over a year before Taiwan’s next presidential election, are likely to please China, which claims self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as its own and has ramped up pressure on Tsai and her administration since she took office in 2016.
In the run-up to the elections, Tsai and her government said repeatedly that China was trying to sway voters with “political bullying” and “fake news,” accusations that Beijing denied.
The DPP lost control of the mayoralties in Taiwan’s second-most populous city Taichung and the key battleground of Kaohsiung in the south, which it held for two decades and played a central role in Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement in the 1970s.
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Both were won by the China-friendly opposition, the Kuomintang, which once ruled China before fleeing to Taiwan at the end of a civil war with the Communists in 1949.
Tsai said the DPP would reflect on the defeat, but she vowed to press on.
“Continuing reforms, freedom and democracy, and protecting the country’s sovereignty are the mission that the DPP won’t abandon,” she told reporters.
She said she would not accept the resignation of her premier William Lai, who had offered to quit earlier in the evening.
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing to the poll results, where state media simply noted Tsai’s resignation as party chairwoman “to take responsibility for the party’s performance in Taiwan’s local elections.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department praised Taiwan for “demonstrating the strength of their vibrant democratic system through a successful round of elections.”
Underscoring Tsai’s challenge are a series of public votes also held on Saturday on whether to make same-sex marriage legal, an issue which has deeply divided Taiwan.
Voters looked set to back a referendum defining marriage as between and a man and a woman, dealing a sharp blow to Taiwan’s position as a bastion of liberalism in Asia.
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Tsai has made little progress despite campaigning on a promise of marriage equality in the run-up to elections in 2016.
In Asia’s first such ruling, Taiwan’s constitutional court declared in May last year that same-sex couples had the right to legally marry, and set a two-year deadline for legalization.
Voters were also asked whether the island should join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than “Chinese Taipei” – the name agreed under a compromise signed in 1981.
A vote to compete under a Taiwan banner would further rile Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
That referendum appeared to have been blocked, with most people voting against re-naming Taiwan’s Olympic team.
Final results for all the referendum votes are not expected until early on Sunday, according to election officials.
© 2018 Reuters