On Saturday, Taiwan elected its first female president. Like almost every female political leader, Tsai Ing-wen has been attacked from both sides: for being too strong, or not strong enough. But in the final hours of her campaign she remained clearly ahead, by 20 percent.
The former opposition party leader had been leading in opinion polls for months. As the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) comes to power with her, it displaced the majority Kuomintang (KMT) — the first time they have controlled parliament since the founding of the country in 1949.
“The results today tell me the people want to see a government that is willing to listen to people, that is more transparent and accountable and a government that is more capable of leading us past our current challenges and taking care of those in need,” Tsai told reporters after declaring victory.
The results of this election will resonate far beyond the island nation of more than 23 million. Since General Chiang Kai-shek led his army there, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Communist Party has considered Taiwan a renegade province and called to reunite it with the mainland. Taiwan, meanwhile, has asserted its right to independence and, since the late 1980s, multiparty democracy.
Over the past decade, however, the KMT-led government has taken a series of controversial steps to build closer relations with China. A series of trade pacts have aimed at liberalizing their economic relations. Last November President Ma met with Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, at a summit in Singapore. For the first time since the 1949, leaders of the two countries shook hands for a full minute in a highly publicized gesture of rapprochement.
As aggressive Chinese posturing inspires resistance across southeast Asia, pro-Beijing measures have become increasingly unpopular in Taiwan, too. In March 2014, a group of students seized the Legislative Yuan, the central government buildings in Taipei and occupied them for days, to protest the signing of the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement. In 2015, economic growth was only 1 percent, giving credence to critics who say that President Ma’s economic reforms have failed to deliver any benefits to Taiwanese citizens.
Their discontentment has helped drive Tsai’s rise. But in many ways the new president remains a mystery. Unlike other female leaders in the region — for instance, Suu Kyi of Myanmar or the ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand (and unlike, for that matter, Hillary Clinton) — Tsai does not come from a political family. Her relatives are primarily in business in the southern part of the island; before politics she pursued a career in academia. At age 59, Tsai herself has kept her private life intensely private. She is not married and does not have children.
Here’s what you need to know about Tsai Ing-wen.
1: Professor Into Politician
Like Angela Merkel, to whom she often compares herself, Tsai comes from an academic background. She earned a Master’s Degree at Cornell and a PhD at the London School of Economics, and served as a professor at several Taiwanese universities before being appointed chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council in 2000.
In 2004, Tsai joined the opposition DPP. She was then elected “legislator at large.” Tsai ran for mayor of the capital city, Taipei, in 2010, but lost to her KMT opponent. She ran as the presidential candidate for the DPP in 2012 but lost to Ma.
In her concession speech, Tsai vowed that she would lead the DPP to victory the next time around. “I bear responsibility for this defeat,” she told an audience of disappointed supporters in Taipei. “There will be a future for us. Next time, we will make that final mile.”
2: Feminist Politics
As a woman in Taiwanese politics, Tsai has not risen alone. Indeed, until last fall, the KMT was planning to run a female candidate in the presidential election as well: the Deputy Parliament Speaker, Hung Hsiu-chu. Both have benefited from a quota system that reserves political positions — for instance, one third of all seats in the legislature — for women.
Throughout her campaign, Tsai addressed women’s leadership, workplace equality, and female participation in politics in her speeches. In July, she addressed a forum of female undergraduates and professionals gathered at National Taiwan University. She detailed the work she had done to advance the rights of women during her political career — including supporting last year’s “Gender Equality in Employment Act.” The proposal gave women maternity leave rights, prohibited sex discrimination in hiring, and strengthened anti sexual-harassment laws.
Praising leaders from Sheryl Sandberg — whom she met during a recent visit to Silicon Valley — to South Korean President Park Geun-Hye–Tsai called for a new “female leadership style.”
“Whether you are male or female, we have a great deal to learn by studying female leadership qualities,” she said. “Attentiveness, tolerance, calm, flexibility and organization — not only women, but every leader should strive for these qualities.”
Tsai’s opponent Hung Hsiu-chu performed poorly in polls, and in October the KMT replaced her with Party Chairman Eric Chu. However, Tsai continues to work with an inner circle of female organizers, and is often pictured with groups of women in her social media profiles and campaign materials.
3: Moderate on China
The only politician to have been elected president from the opposition party, DPP Chairman Chen Shui-bian took office in 2000. Chen made a number of symbolic pro-independence gestures that antagonized China, including taking a tour to the United States to meet with Congressmen in 2001, reorganizing school curricula to be more Taiwan-centric, and shifting official materials from referring to the “Republic of China” to “Taiwan” — for instance on passports.
Tsai, however, has continued to chart a middle course, saying she would step back from controversial economic policies that Ma initiated but try to continue to improve relations. While these gestures may help make her electable, they have also disappointed some left-leaning supporters in the DPP.
Last fall, when commenters apparently from China started attacking her in comments on her Facebook page, Tsai turned their aggression into a joke. Referring to the fact that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, and can only be accessed by VPN, she quipped: “I hope this rare new experience lets my new ‘Friends’ discover the democracy, freedom and pluralism of Taiwan… Welcome to the world of Facebook!”
4: Support of LGBT Rights
Taiwan has some of the most progressive policies on LGBT rights in Asia, and Tsai has vocally supported expanding them to include same sex marriage. A campaign video that she released on Cixi, Chinese Valentine’s Day, last August, included three same sex couples. When the biggest gay pride parade in Asia took place in Taipei at the end of October, she reiterated these views in a video that she posted on her Facebook page and shared more than 3000 times.
“When it comes to love, everyone is equal,” Tsai says in the video. “I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality. Every person should be able to look for love freely, and freely seek their own happiness.”
5: She is conciliatory and seeks co-operation
During the last week before the election, Tsai traveled the length of Taiwan rallying supporters and trying to change the minds of any voters who remain undecided. In recent campaign statements, Tsai has stressed that she will unite an island often starkly divided by political allegiances. In a statement on January 12, she promised: “If elected, I will only recognize the people, I will not see blue or green” — a reference to the colors associated with the KMT and DPP, respectively. “When the DPP takes the central office, all counties will be treated equally.”