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Taiwan ruling party's Lai takes initial lead in presidential vote

Taiwan ruling party's Lai takes initial lead in presidential vote

World

Taiwan ruling party's Lai takes initial lead in presidential vote

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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate for Taiwan's ruling party, took an initial lead in early vote counting on Saturday, potentially setting him on course to win an election that China had framed as a choice between war and peace.

Lai, Taiwan's vice president, reached more than three million votes by early evening after polls closed at 4 p.m. (0800 GMT), according by to a running tally by Taiwanese media, putting him comfortably ahead of his two rivals, though no party has conceded or claimed victory.

His Democratic Progressive Party, which champions Taiwan's separate identity and rejects China's territorial claims, is seeking a third term, unprecedented under Taiwan's current electoral system.

Lai is facing two opponents for the presidency - Hou Yu-ih of Taiwan's largest opposition party the Kuomintang, and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je of the small Taiwan People's Party, only founded in 2019.

In the running vote tally reported by Taiwan media, Hou was in second place with some 2.7 million votes, while Ko had just over two million.

Speaking to reporters in the southern city of Tainan before voting, Lai encouraged people to cast their ballots.

"Every vote is valued, as this is Taiwan's hard-earned democracy," he said in brief remarks.

In the run-up to the election, China repeatedly denounced Lai as a dangerous separatist and rebuffed his repeated calls for talks. Lai says he is committed to preserving peace across the Taiwan Strait and boosting the island's defences.

Taiwan's defence ministry said on Saturday morning it had again spotted Chinese balloons crossing the sensitive strait, one of which flew over Taiwan itself. The ministry has denounced the spate of balloons reported over the strait in the past month as psychological warfare and a threat to aviation safety.

"Nobody wants war," said Jennifer Lu, 36, a businesswoman, who was playing on a grass pitch with her daughter after casting a ballot on a sunny morning in Taipei's Songshan district.

Hou wants to restart engagement beginning with people-to-people exchanges and has, like China, accused Lai of supporting Taiwan's formal independence. Lai says Hou is pro-Beijing, which Hou rejects.

Ko has won a passionate support base, especially among young voters, for focussing on bread and butter issues such as the high cost of housing. He also wants to re-engage China but insists that cannot come at the expense of protecting Taiwan's democracy and way of life.

The parliamentary elections are equally important, especially if no party wins a majority, potentially hindering the new president's ability to pass legislation and spending, especially for defence.

"Compared to previous elections, the result this time is very difficult to predict," said Liao Jeng-wen, 44, a financial sector worker who voted early on Saturday. "Taiwan's next leader should think of ways to peacefully get along with China... Many Taiwanese think we should maintain the status quo."

President Tsai Ing-wen is constitutionally barred from standing again after two terms in office.