TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is not like the average politician from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
A former law professor with an academic bearing, she favours pragmatism over the populist rhetoric of previous party leader Chen Shui-bian, whose assertions during his 2000-2008 presidency that Taiwan was an independent country infuriated China which labelled him a “splittist” and “criminal.”
Tsai’s background sets her apart from the party’s traditional support base of farmers and blue-collar workers, and she has even had to learn their dialect, Taiwanese. She was schooled in Mandarin, the language of the island’s business, political and social elite.
She also toes a softer line than her predecessors.
“‘Little Ing’ wasn’t a typical heavy-hitting DPP politician,” said Liao Da-chi, professor at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat Sen University, referring to Tsai by her nickname.
“People were not so used to her cultured style. They favoured the sharp tongued argumentative style of Chen, so it was hard for their passion to come out.”
Nevertheless, she has successfully restructured and revitalised a party beset by factionalism and in disarray after its heavy defeat in a 2008 presidential poll and the subsequent jailing of Chen on corruption charges.
The latest polls put her only a few points behind incumbent Nationalist Party President Ma Ying-jeou, also a lawyer with a similar moderate demeanour.
The 55-year-old Tsai, known for her analytical mind and negotiating skills, has moved the DPP towards a more centrist position that plays down its previous, strident pro-independence line.
But she has yet to convince rival China.
Given the party’s pro-independence history, Beijing remains suspicious of Tsai and her party, preferring Ma for his pursuit of closer economic relations with the mainland.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to take it back by force if necessary. It views any move towards independence as grounds for military action.
Tsai seeks to put the Taiwan-China question into a broader global framework, moving it away from a bilateral issue. She has offered olive branches to China but to little avail.
She said in a speech last week that under her administration, she was sure “ties with China would move forward, not backwards.”
Domestically, she has emphasised social inclusion and a fair distribution of wealth, taking aim at Ma’s economic rapprochement with China that she says has benefited the Nationalists’ big-business allies and is a means to hand control of Taiwan to China.
Tsai’s background reflects the ethnic mix common to many Taiwanese, and has become an asset she has been able to use to build support among different interest groups.
She was born in a coastal village in rural southern Taiwan to a Hakka father and a Taiwanese mother, and has a grandmother who is Paiwan, one of Taiwan’s non-Chinese indigenous peoples.
She moved to the capital, Taipei, at the age of 11, and went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cornell University and a law doctorate from the London School of Economics before embarking on an academic career.
Tsai has served in Taiwan’s China policy-making body, the Mainland Affairs Council, and on the Fair Trade Commission, and also as a national security adviser.
In the 1990s, she was a negotiator for Taiwan’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
She was minister of the Mainland Affairs Council and vice premier during the DPP’s 2000-2008 administration, becoming chairwoman of the party in 2008.
Single and intensely private with a liking for crunchy peanut cookies, Tsai released an autobiography late last year as a way of giving voters an insight into her life.
Editing by Brian Rhoads and Robert Birsel