TAIPEI: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on Saturday (Nov 24) after the pro-independence party suffered major defeats in key mid-term polls, a blow to her prospects for re-election.
"As chairperson of the ruling party, I will take complete responsibility for the outcome of today's local elections," Tsai told reporters.
"I resign as DPP chairperson. Our efforts weren't enough and we let down all our supporters who fought with us. I want to express our most sincere apologies."
DPP lost its traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung city for the first time in 20 years, and was also defeated in the second-largest city of Taichung.
The local elections were seen as a mid-term test for Tsai, as she faces a backlash over domestic reforms and concerns about deteriorating ties with China.
The results of the polls, being held a little more than a year ahead of Taiwan's next presidential elections, will be closely watched in China, which claims self-ruled and proudly democratic Taiwan as its own.
Both Kaohsiung and Taichung were won by the China-friendly opposition, the Kuomintang.
Tsai said the DPP would reflect on the defeat, but she vowed to press on.
"Continuing reforms, freedom and democracy, and protecting the country's sovereignty are the mission that the DPP would not abandon," she told reporters.
Tsai said she would not accept the resignation of her premier William Lai, who had offered to quit earlier in the evening.
Lai wrote on his Facebook page: "The election results showed that people are not satisfied. For this, I feel sorry, and have offered my resignation to President Tsai Ing-wen to accept political responsibility."
The DPP held on in two of its other strongholds though - Tainan in the island's south and Taoyuan in the north.
Votes are still being counted in Taiwan's capital Taipei, where the incumbent mayor Ko Wen-je, an independent, is in a close race with the Kuomintang's Ting Shou-chung, and the DPP is running a distant third.
Taiwan television stations reported a high turnout, with some polling stations in parts of Taipei and Kaohsiung remaining open past 4pm (0800GMT) when the polls were supposed to close.
Candidates fanned out across the island to press the flesh and canvass votes, and held noisy, colourful rallies that have become the hallmarks of Taiwan's vibrant democracy, in marked contrast to China where the Communist Party tolerates no dissent to its rule.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have heightened with China conducting military drills around the island and snatching away Taiwan's dwindling number of diplomatic allies.
Tsai's domestic reform initiatives, from the island's pension scheme to labour law, have also come under intense voter scrutiny recently.
Confidence in the government has waned in recent months after reform moves upset both the opposition and some supporters, who said Tsai had backed away from promises to reduce the deficit and cut pollution.
Underscoring Tsai's challenge are a series of public votes also held on Saturday on whether to make same-sex marriage legal, an issue which has deeply divided Taiwan.
"This is a small step for myself, but a big step for mankind," Chi Chia-wei, a veteran gay rights activist who had petitioned Taiwan's constitutional court to take up the issue, told Reuters after he voted.
Tsai has made little progress despite campaigning on a promise of marriage equality in the run-up to elections in 2016.
In Asia's first such ruling, Taiwan's constitutional court declared in May last year that same-sex couples had the right to legally marry, and set a two-year deadline for legalisation.
Voters will also be asked whether the island should join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than "Chinese Taipei" – the name agreed under a compromise signed in 1981.
A vote to compete under a Taiwan banner would further rile Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
Voters in Taiwan backed anti-gay marriage referendums, in what LGBT activists said was a major blow to the island's reputation as a rights trailblazer.
READ: Anti-gay marriage groups win Taiwan referendum battle
With all three conservative referendums passing the threshold of 25 percent of eligible voters, under referendum law the government must take steps to reflect the result.
Ahead of the vote, Amnesty International had urged the government not to "water down" same-sex marriage proposals in the face of a conservative win.