TAIPEI, Taiwan — The president of Taiwan resigned as leader of her party Saturday night after it suffered stunning local election defeats to the opposition Kuomintang, which favors closer ties with China.
The island nation’s political landscape was shaken up by voters who delivered a sharp rebuke to President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party in elections contesting more than 11,000 seats from city mayors to neighborhood wardens. The results have given the Kuomintang a new lease on life, and a potentially strong challenger to Ms. Tsai in the presidential election 14 months away.
Shortly after it became apparent that the D.P.P. would lose crucial mayoral races, Ms. Tsai resigned her position as party leader at a news conference, raising the possibility that she would be challenged for her party’s nomination for the presidential election in January 2020.
“As this party’s chair, I take full responsibility for the outcome of today’s local elections,” she said at a hastily assembled news conference at D.P.P. headquarters. “People believe in democratic values — today democracy taught us a lesson.”
Opposition Kuomintang mayoral candidates won in Taiwan’s three largest cities — New Taipei City, Taichung and Kaohsiung. The Kaohsiung contest was especially stinging for the D.P.P., which has held the mayor’s office for 20 years and considered the southern city a political stronghold.
Kaohsiung’s Mayor-elect, Han Kuo-yu, emerged as the story of the election, defeating his D.P.P. opponent, Chen Chi-mai, who had been expected to win easily.
“All of Taiwan, all of the ethnic Chinese worldwide, can see the change in Kaohsiung,” Mr. Han said in his victory speech at a massive rally. Before the election, he attained celebrity status for his populist and occasionally politically incorrect style. In the final weeks of campaigning, he took that popularity on the road, stumping for Kuomintang candidates around the country, which may have helped decide several close races.
One of the most popular politicians in Taiwan, Taipei’s independent mayor, Ko Wen-je, had only a slight lead over his Kuomintang opponent, Ting Shou-chung, late Saturday as votes were still being tallied. If Mr. Ting goes on to win, the Kuomintang would hold the mayor’s office in Taiwan’s four largest cities.
Mayors in Taiwan are similar in stature to governors in the United States, and the Kuomintang mayors offer new potential dialogue partners for Beijing, which refuses to engage with Ms. Tsai and could use them to further isolate her and increase China’s involvement in Taiwan politics.
The Communist Party of China seeks to annex Taiwan, which it has never ruled, and refuses to speak with Ms. Tsai unless she accepts the stance held by her Kuomintang predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, that Taiwan and China are both part of the same country, with potentially different interpretations of what that country is on either side of the Strait.
China has done all it can to put pressure on Ms. Tsai since she took office in 2016. In the hope of seeing her become Taiwan’s first one-term president, Beijing has poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, increased military exercises near its borders and pressured companies to list the self-ruled democracy as a part of China on their websites.
In recent weeks, Taiwanese officials, including Ms. Tsai herself, accused China of trying to influence Taiwan’s election through online misinformation aimed at undermining confidence in the D.P.P. China has rejected the accusations. Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice is also investigating 33 cases of alleged illegal funding of candidates by China, but has not disclosed who is under investigation. Taiwan voters all file paper ballots, which are hand counted so they cannot be hacked.
Taiwanese voters also focused on issues other than China, including stagnant wage growth, severe air pollution in the island’s south and other domestic considerations.
Among 10 referendum issues, LGBT rights suffered a major setback, with voters overwhelmingly opposing same-sex marriage and supporting the removal of LGBT-related content from school textbooks, which are seen as a major factor behind the strong support among Taiwanese youth for such rights.
Those results increased the likelihood of Taiwan’s adopting separate civil union status for same-sex couples rather than offering them the same legal status as heterosexual married couples.
Speaking at an election result viewing party in Taipei’s Wenshan district, a Kuomintang volunteer, Lin Mei-chuan, said she disapproved of the Tsai administration’s handling of the economy, as well as cross-strait ties.
“People want a change,” Ms. Lin said, “It’s time for someone else to run things.”