Opinion polls leading up to Taiwan's 16 January elections continue to show the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — the opposition party that favours greater Taiwanese autonomy from China — with a sizable lead, and some in the international media are warning that a DPP victory could upend cross-Strait relations.
Few, however, are focused on the likely next president of Taiwan herself. Tsai Ing-wen, 59, has distinguished herself in a field of charismatic competitors by relying on a calm, steady style combined with a methodical, people-focused approach to build the trust and support of the Taiwanese people. A closer look into Tsai's background and leadership record reveals that she is unlikely to be the aggressive pro-independence force that many associate with the DPP.
Both domestic Taiwanese and international audiences are closely watching the upcoming election, not only because it could usher in Taiwan's first female president and the ousting of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), but also because it comes against a backdrop of stalled economic growth and uncertainty surrounding cross-Strait relations.
In a Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR) poll conducted in late December, Tsai led with 40.1% over KMT candidate Eric Chu's 17.5% and People First Party candidate James Soong's 16.8%. The same poll indicates that the KMT risks losing its legislative majority; it would be the first time the KMT would be completely out of power at the national level.
Many Taiwanese are disillusioned with current President Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) because of his failure to revitalise the economy, and some claim his efforts to pursue closer ties with Beijing have made Taiwan too economically dependent on China. The TISR poll indicates that 71.5% of respondents are unsatisfied with Ma, and 85.8% believe the economy is in bad shape. This political and economic climate has helped facilitate Tsai's rise in popularity, giving her an opportunity to differentiate herself as a leader who listens to the people and who has a plan to modernise Taiwan's economy.
Born in a coastal village in the south of Taiwan, Tsai grew up in a well-off family that moved to Taipei City when she was 11 years old. Some have cited her mixed ethnicity — a Hakka father, Taiwanese mother, and grandmother from one of the non-Chinese indigenous groups in Taiwan — as beneficial to her campaign. After growing up watching her father run a successful automotive business, Tsai went on to earn an LLB from Taiwan National University's College of Law (1978), an LLM from Cornell University Law School (1980), and a PhD in law from the London School of Economics (1984).
After her schooling, she returned to Taiwan where she taught at two universities, and entered the political fray in the 1990s. Tsai spent most of the next two decades in various public sector roles, most notably from 2000-2004 as the youngest-ever Chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council, the government body responsible for relations with Beijing. She lost her first bid for the presidency in 2012 by a slim margin to Ma, and after taking two years to regroup, resumed her position as Chairperson of the DPP in 2014, leading her party to a historic victory in local elections.
As Tsai transitioned from university professor to politician, she developed her own brand of political leadership based on communication and calm thinking. After admitting that her rallies lacked energy, Tsai sought advice from the leader of a Taiwanese theatre troupe on how to respond to an indifferent audience. His guidance on how performers ignore audiences prompted Tsai to stick with her own style, one that she describes as 'low-key but deeply felt passion.' In response to critics who said she wasn't enough of a schemer to survive in Taiwan's political environment during her first presidential campaign, Tsai responded firmly that in three years she had shown that 'scheming doesn't have to be a part of politics, and that trust and debate are more important.'
Tsai appears to be driven by a desire to reform an increasingly economically and socially divided Taiwan. Unlike the KMT candidates — first the fiery Hung Hsiu-chu and now her replacement, Eric Chu, often described as the party's rising star — Tsai doesn't enjoy the limelight, but rather abides it because she feels strongly about reform. She has repeatedly cited widening income gaps, outsourcing, and stagnating salaries as proof that President Ma has failed to provide for Taiwan's people. Tsai has made the day-to-day concerns of the Taiwanese people a cornerstone of her campaign, writing in her latest book, 'A politician must think from the public's perspective, to find whether a policy would bring convenience or burden to the public when it is implemented in the lives of the ordinary.'
Although commentators have described Tsai as introspective, deliberate, and lawyerly, she balances her composed and professional demeanour with a wry sense of humour. When a journalist from TIME complimented her breakfast cooking, Tsai responded, 'I have a PhD, you know.' She reportedly once joked to an officer from the American Institute in Taiwan that her first year as DPP chairperson was like 'mandatory military service.'
Contrary to some commentators' attempts to paint Tsai as a radical or a likely source of uncertainty in the region, her record and leadership style suggest her victory in January would bring calm, capable, and inclusive leadership to Taiwan. The long transition period until the inauguration on 20 May would give Tsai four months to flesh out her policies and to build consensus within the new legislature.
When it comes to China, Tsai is likely to lean on her political savvy in international affairs. Political observers say they trust her pledge to maintain the status quo on cross-Strait relations and to maintain a constructive dialogue with China. Taiwan-based political commentator Ben Goren writes, 'While she will of course seek to promote Taiwan's visibility and participation internationally, it is unlikely that she will do so in ways designed to incur China's wrath. Instead, what we may see is China's shrill petulance and aggression clearly delineated by its contrast with Tsai's calm statesmanship.' We got a taste for this interaction in November when Chinese commentators spammed Tsai's Facebook page with critiques of her cross-Strait policies and Chinese flag emojis. Tsai responded in a post stating, 'I hope this rare opportunity can help our 'new friends' get a complete view of the democracy, freedom, and diversity of Taiwan. Welcome to the world of Facebook!'
Tsai should not be underestimated on domestic issues, as she is a determined reformer and a tenacious negotiator. She has stressed that she wants her reforms to be 'great achievements' and that she will 'persist until the end and not give up' even if she must offend some vested interests as she takes responsibility for Taiwan's future. Former US diplomats have warmly praised Tsai's interpersonal skills, her intellect, her negotiating style, and her ability to formulate and implement policy. In addition to her ambitious economic agenda, Tsai is passionate about social justice issues. She has publicly announced her support for same-sex marriage, and we may see her push for Taiwan to become a leader in the region on legalising same-sex unions.
While many in Taiwan look forward to turning the page on the Ma era, not everyone is as confident of Tsai's leadership. The DPP has a history of factional infighting, and some are concerned about Tsai's ability to maintain party discipline. Tsai's critics describe her as aloof and her policies as vague, particularly regarding her strategy for maintaining cross-Strait peace. KMT candidate Chu has mocked Tsai's commitment to the status quo as 'wishful thinking.'
Tsai's background gives us a window into how she might govern. Additional factors like the makeup of the new legislature, China's reaction to the election results (for more on this, see Taiwan-China Relations Part 2: Beijing is the determining factor), and the West's response will all influence Tsai's first term in office. For someone as independent and strong-willed as Tsai Ing-wen, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that so much of Tsai's presidency may depend on external factors.