Firecrackers and a burst of metallic red streamers filled the streets outside the Kuomintang (KMT) party headquarters last night as Mr Lee arrived, beaming with confidence after hearing that he had secured 54 per cent of the vote in Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections.
Amid heavy security, the president told the crowds: "This is the most valuable moment in our history." After two weeks of Chinese missile tests and military exercises in the seas near Taiwan, which Peking thought would reduce support for Mr Lee, he declared: "At a time when our country is under threat and intimidation, we are able to complete this election successfully because we believe deeply that this is a historic . . . mission." It is only nine years since martial law was lifted in Taiwan.
Mr Lee's share of the vote was higher than expected, and even government officials admit that China's heavy-handed tactics almost certainly improved his showing.
The crucial question was whether the president would manage to reach the 50 per cent target he had set himself. Failure to do this might have encouraged Peking, which accuses Mr Lee of being a closet supporter of Taiwanese independence, to think its strategy of military provocation had proved successful.
Throughout yesterday, voters steadily streamed to the polls, visibly proud that their country had reached a milestone in its political reform. Overall turnout was an impressive 76 per cent,notably higher than in December's parliamentary elections.
There was no immediate reaction from Peking last night, and it may take weeks before it is clear how these results will affect mainland policy towards Taiwan. The very high turnout, and the fact that three-quarters of voters backed candidates who said Taiwan should continue to push for greater international status, is an embarrassing rebuff for China.
Second in the presidential race, with 21 per cent, was Dr Peng Ming-min, the candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The party says Taiwan should drop its traditional "One China" policy and abandon any thought of future reunification with the mainland. Lin Yang-kang, who advocated a non-confrontational approach to the mainland and eventual reunification, won nearly 15 per cent, while Chen Li-an, a former defence minister turned devout Buddhist, was just short of 10 per cent.
Taiwan's elections have caused the biggest crisis in cross-Strait relations for decades. Two United States aircraft carriers and accompanying battle groups are in position near the Taiwan Strait to deter any military adventurism by the People's Liberation Army.
China's army, navy and aircraft drills will continue until tomorrow, but there have been widespread reports that the mainland may be planning further provocative manoeuvres in the coming weeks.
Also voted in yesterday was a new National Assembly for Taiwan, the body which sanctions amendments to the constitution. Although completely overshadowed by the presidential polls, this probably gave a clearer indication of party loyalties. The KMT took 52.6 per cent, the DPP 31.6 per cent, and the New Party 14.5 per cent. The New Party, which split from the KMT last year, backed Mr Lin in the presidential race. It represents the old guard, pro-reunification mainland immigrants.
Voters yesterday vigorously defended their choice of candidates. A 49- year-old businessman, who had voted for Mr Lee, said: "I think he is the man who will lead us into the international political arena." A 28-year- old woman, a genetics researcher, who backed Dr Peng, said Taiwan must stand up to mainland threats.Reuse content