Taiwan's opposition Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen has united factions in her divided party since election losses in 2008. This year the party chose her to run against incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou in elections this coming January. If she wins, Tsai is expected to lead what has been a historically anti-China party one cautious step closer to Beijing.
Tsai has a reputation as a conciliator and so after she received her party’s nomination last month, Tsai Ing-wen tried to make peace with the Democratic Progressive Party elder she defeated. Although the former premier Su Tseng-chang just shook hands with her and declined a private meeting, Tsai avoided criticizing him at a during a campaign rally stop at a temple in Taipei.
She says the issue between them is an old one, requiring no further explanation. But she says she wants to emphasize that whenever this type of issue occurs, the party seeks to smooth things over internally and reach consensus.
Cases such as this add up to why Tsai is credited with bringing new cohesion to her party, usually known as the DPP, since becoming chairwoman in 2008. Hsiao Bi-khim, a confidant of Tsai’s for 11 years and a party think tank vice president, says that spirit gives the DPP a chance to take back the presidency that it held for eight years.
"Two years ago the party was defeated in elections. It was devastated, divided, and Tsai Ing-wen took charge of the party at the most difficult time in its history," said Hsiao Bi-khim. "She has also managed to give the party not only more momentum on the grass roots but a more positive public image. According to polls right now, we are seen as a political party that better understands the needs of the people and so we expect to also launch the presidential campaign based on these issues, primarily socio-economic issues.”
Leading the DPP means serving a political faction that hopes Taiwan will declare itself formally independent of China. That crosses a red line for Beijing, which has claimed the self-ruled island as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940's. But Tsai must also answer to a more moderate pro-business faction that prefers engagement with China’s massive economy to stay competitive in Asia.
Since former DPP president Chen Shui-bian left office in 2008 due to term limits after outraging Beijing with his independence views, Ma’s government has reached out to China, starting hundreds of direct flights, slashing trade tariffs and allowing direct investment from the other side. Those accords have pushed annual two-way trade past $100 billion. The growing economic ties also give Beijing hope for political unification in the future.
Relations with China
Tsai is campaigning for increasing trade ties with China but only if Beijing respects Taiwan’s autonomy. That would mean vetting cross-Strait deals through the World Trade Organization and other international bodies. Beijing is likely to bristle at those requirements but is still expected to work with her administration. The candidate, for her part, has already sent confidantes to China to start making inroads should she win the election.
But a government under Tsai is unlikely to renounce its goal of formally declaring independence. China has said such a move would be grounds for a military strike on the island some 150 kilometers away.
At home, Tsai stands out for her relative youth and personal background. She is a 54-year-old former professor who studied at Taiwan’s best university followed by law degrees at Cornell and the London School of Economics. She speaks English with near-native fluency, wowing foreign audiences with a broad vocabulary and candor unusual for a politician. Tsai is unmarried and has effectively devoted her past 20 years to politics.
Tsai first made a name in government as an architect of the state-to-state relations platform of former president Lee Teng-hui, whose theory prompted an angry China to fire missiles in the Strait near Taiwan. Under the next president, anti-China hardliner Chen Shui-bian, Tsai was hired as a non-partisan minister in charge of affairs with Beijing. She later became Chen’s vice premier until the cabinet resigned en masse.
Taiwan’s presidential campaign has been dominated by domestic issues. Tsai is reaching out to the party’s traditional support base of the lower middle-class and younger people worried about jobs and money. The DPP charges the current government has allowed a wealth gap to widen as the rich benefit from deals with China. The wealthiest 20 percent are more than six times richer than the poorest 20 percent, the widest gap since 2001.
"I think they will portray that the improvement at the rapprochement across the Strait has only brought about positive income or the benefit for the rich people or big companies, and the opposition will try to identify itself with the general public, who has not been able thicken their wallets," said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. "As for the candidates, from both KMT and DPP, they are relatively of similar personality: They are very strong minded people and they will campaign very hard."
Tsai advocates more high-tech research and development to take Taiwan beyond contract hardware manufacturing that has led the economy for 30 years, but started to see margins shrink. She also supports renewing the island’s moribund agricultural sector. And since younger Taiwanese care increasingly about the environment, Tsai advocates a tough line against any new polluting factories.
But Ma’s Nationalists have voiced many of the same ideas. They are trying to close the wealth gap with a tax on expensive property, luxury cars and jet airplanes. His government seeks to develop six new pillar industries, including solar energy and high-value agriculture. Ma also stopped an offshore oil refinery project last month following environmental protests.
The race remains closely contested and observers say it is tough to say whether economic policies, the candidates stance on relations with China, or other issues will emerge as the deciding factor in the January 14 election.