Taiwan elections - A contest between women | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.07.2015
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Taiwan elections - A contest between women

Taiwan is set to have its first-ever female president in 2016 as both the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have named women candidates to contest the presidential election.

Unlike China, Taiwan is a democracy. Although Beijing continues to claim sovereignty over the island, the Taiwanese people have been electing their own leaders since 1996. Next year, they could, in all likelihood, even elect a female candidate as their leader.

Taiwan's ruling party KMT today nominated the deputy legislative speaker, 67-year-old Hung Hsiu-chu (main picture), as its candidate for the 2016 presidential elections. Her main challenger is the DPP chairwoman, 59-year-old Tsai Ing-wen. This is the first time in Taiwan's history that two female candidates are running for president. Other potential candidates such as the independent Shih Ming-te or 77-year-old Hsu Jung-shu are not considered to have good electoral prospects.

Unlike female leaders in other countries such as South Korea's Park Geun-hye, Thailand's Yingluck Shinawatra, or Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, neither Hung nor Tsai comes from a political family. Both candidates remain unmarried and have no children.

Prosperity vs poverty

Opposition candidate Tsai comes from a wealthy business family. She worked as a professor of law, and later held several government positions. Tsai first contested a local election in 2010. In the 2012 presidential election, she ran an unsuccessful bid against the incumbent Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT.

USA Tsai Ing-wen

Opposition candidate Tsai (center) ran an unsuccessful bid against President Ma Ying-jeou in 2012

The ruling party candidate, Hung, on the other hand, comes from a relatively poor family. Her father was imprisoned for about three-and-a-half years during "White Terror" - the period of political repression in Taiwan beginning in the 1940s by the KMT government.

Even after his release, her father could not find work for the next 40 years. The family had to survive on her mother's meager income. For a while, Hung worked as a secondary school teacher before she became a member of parliament in 1990.

'Intellect vs temper"

The two candidates also have very different characters. Tsai, for instance, often comes across as a typical civil servant or academic and she is polite and taciturn.

Given her similarities with the incumbent president, Yen Chen-shen, a political-science professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, even referred to her jokingly as a "female Ma Ying-jeou." The reason for this is that both politicians stem from well-off families and have similar professional and academic backgrounds. The also resemble in the way the conduct themselves.

Hung, by contrast, always seems to say what's on her mind. She is sometimes so straightforward you may forget she is a politician. She has even been involved in feisty verbal exchanges in the Taiwanese parliament, which is renowned for its brawls.

'For' or 'against' China?

I-Chung Lai, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at "Taiwan Thinktank," explained that a candidate's gender has never been an issue in electoral campaigns. Much more important is his or her stance on China, which still doesn't exclude military intervention should Taiwan officially declare independence. Those candidates who have promised peace in stability in their policies towards the mainland have so far managed to get the most votes.

While Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has generally advocated a "de jure" independence of the island, Tsai has repeatedly stated that she would like the territory to remain "de facto" independent - a position supported by up to 80 percent of Taiwanese, according to opinion polls.

Tsai changed her China policy in 2012 after failing to convince voters of the disadvantages of the China-friendly course being followed by President Ma.

By contrast, Hung Hsiu-chu almost squandered her party's advantageous position on the China issue. Ahead of her official nomination as presidential candidate, she made some remarks which some interpreted as support for a reunification with the mainland. Although Hung denied the allegations, they dented her party's image. Party chief Eric Chu ultimately demanded that Hung re-embrace the KMT's China policy.

Differing economic views

It is important to note in this regard that both candidates' economic programs are also linked to the China issue, although in opposite ways. While KMT candidate Hung wants Taiwan to deepen ties with the mainland, DDP candidate Tsai is seeking to boost trade with other countries in order to lessen the island's economic dependency on China.

Recent polls put Tsai Ing-wen far ahead of her electoral rival, and both Professor Yen and analyst Lai believe Tsai will ultimately win the vote. Some 18 million Taiwanese are eligible to vote in the January 16 election.