Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is leading as votes were being counted on Saturday after an election battle dominated by the democratic island’s fraught relationship with China.
Unofficial live tallies kept by major local news networks showed the 63-year-old securing around 56-57 percent of more than 10 million votes counted so far.
Her main rival Han Kuo-yu, of the China-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT), trailed with 38-39 percent on an island where some 19 million people are registered to vote.
The outcome will reverberate far beyond Taiwan’s borders with Tsai and Han laying out very different visions for its future — in particular how close the self-ruled island should tack to its giant neighbour.
Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to retake the island one day, by force if necessary.
But China is also Taiwan’s largest trade partner, leaving the island in a precariously dependent relationship.
Tsai, seeking a second four-year term, has pitched herself as a defender of Taiwan’s liberal values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by Beijing under President Xi Jinping.
“We hope our citizens can come out to vote to exercise their rights and make Taiwan’s democracy stronger,” she told reporters after voting in the capital Taipei.
Han, 62, favours much warmer ties with China — saying it would boost Taiwan’s fortunes — and accuses the current administration of needlessly antagonising Beijing.
He has cast the election as a choice between “peace or crisis” with China, adopting the slogan “Taiwan safe, people rich”.
Thousands of supporters began gathering Saturday night for election count rallies but the atmosphere at Han’s event in Kaohsiung was markedly more subdued with some in tears, AFP reporters said.
A Tsai victory would infuriate Beijing, which has made no secret of wanting to see her turfed out.
Taiwan bans the publishing of polls within 10 days of elections, but the former law professor has led comfortably throughout the campaign.
Her party currently has a parliamentary majority, which analysts expect it to retain.
“We need a president who can defend freedom and democracy,” Vicky Hsiao, a 37-year-old housewife, told AFP after voting in Taipei for Tsai.
“Taiwan is an independent country that doesn’t belong to anyone.”
But others want change.