Lai, the current vice president, faced repeated attacks from China, which called him a dangerous separatist.
William Lai Ching-te from the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has won Taiwan’s presidential election, despite warnings from China – which claims Taiwan as part of its territory – not to vote for him.
Lai, the current vice president, was in a three-way race with Hou Yu-ih from the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which was only founded in 2019.
Lai took 40.2 percent of votes cast, according to partial results from the Central Election Commission on Saturday.
Opponent Hou conceded defeat and congratulated Lai on his victory. He also apologised to KMT supporters for not being able to remove the DPP. Ko also conceded defeat.
“I want to thank the Taiwanese people for writing a new chapter in our democracy,” Lai said in a victory speech where he thanked his two opponents for conceding. “We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy.”
He added that hoped for a return to “healthy and orderly” exchanges with China, reiterating his desire for talks based on dignity and parity.
The results were counted from 98 percent of polling stations across the island, according to the commission tally, which also showed that Hou had trailed with 33.4 percent of the vote.
Voters also elected politicians to Taiwan’s 113-seat legislature in elections closely watched by China and the United States.
Taiwan’s elections carry an outsized importance because of the territory’s disputed political status. While self-governing since the 1940s, China still claims the island and its outlying territories and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its ambitions.
In the run-up to the polls, China denounced Lai as a dangerous separatist, said he would be a threat to peace in the region if he won, and called the elections a choice between “peace and war”.
In his victory speech, Lai said the self-governed island had managed to see off attempts to influence the vote, in an apparent swipe at China. “The Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence this election,” he said.
Lai has maintained that he is committed to peace and open to conditional engagement with Beijing, while also boosting the island’s defences.
But he also promised “to safeguard Taiwan from continuing threat and intimidation from China”.
China has stepped up military pressure on Taiwan in recent years, periodically stoking worries about a potential invasion. Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a recent New Year’s address the “unification” of Taiwan with China was “inevitable“.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Taipei, said, “There is a feeling here that whatever Taiwan does, China is going to travel its own course.”
“I think [Lai] has made an effort, as have the other candidates, to remain open to dialogue, but they are very aware that this is going to depend on what Beijing wants,” he added.
Cheng said China had made a point that it did not want to see Lai win the election and that a vote for the DPP would be a vote for war.
“These are very provocative words, but we’ve seen Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen managing the very complicated relations with Beijing over the past eight years,” he said.
The DPP has been in power for the past eight years under President Tsai Ing-wen.
Some 19.5 million people aged 20 and over were eligible to vote, and voter turnout was expected to be high based on public transit data.
Taiwanese are required to return to the location of their household registration – typically their home town – to vote in person, which means the leadup to elections is a busy time for the island-wide rail service.
On Friday, the Taiwan Railway Administration predicted a record 758,000 in ticket sales – higher than any previous election.
The European Union “welcomed” Taiwan’s presidential election and congratulated all the voters who participated in “this democratic exercise”, a statement said, without mentioning the president-elect.
“The EU remains concerned about growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait and opposes any unilateral attempt to change the status quo,” the statement by a spokesperson for EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell said.
“The European Union underlines that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait are key to regional and global security and prosperity.”
Japan congratulated “the smooth implementation of the democratic election and Mr. Lai on his victory.”
“We expect that the issue surrounding Taiwan will be resolved peacefully through dialogue, thereby contributing to the peace and stability in the region,” it said in a statement, adding that Taiwan was an “extremely crucial partner” with whom Tokyo aimed to “deepen cooperation.”
Al Jazeera and news agencies