Tsai Ing-wen: Delusions of grandeur?

by on Thursday, 01 March 2012 Comments

Recently, during the run-up to the Taiwanese 2012 general election, I remember talking to a Taiwanese friend of mine, a staunch supporter of the DPP. When asking him what he thought of Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT candidate, he answered: “自我感覺良好”, which could be translated as having delusions of grandeur, high views of oneself, someone with impossible targets to meet, etc. A few days later I mentioned this same conversation to my KMT supporting friend, and she responded by laughing it off and saying that Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP candidate, was the deluded one.

Aside from what this says about modern politics, which is basically a never-ending exercise in bickering and name-calling, what my second friend said about Tsai Ing-wen got me thinking; was she really deluded? Was there ever a real chance of her becoming the first female president of Taiwan? The election results were relatively close, although the victory was still clear for the ruling KMT party. The question is, how big a role did Tsai Ing-wen’s gender play in the results? And finally, was Taiwan, a country in which a large part of women are still often fairly submissive and meek towards men, really ready for its first female president?

Taiwan’s democratic history is very recent, by any standards. Since the first election after the martial law which happened in 1996, the Taiwanese have consistently and passionately campaigned and engaged in political activity. In Taiwan, however, most elections are not won based on personalities or appearances, the votes are rather cast based on family ties to either party or on the basis of one’s attitude towards China, which is the main conflicting point of policy. This allows for, barring some scandalous event such as the DPP corruption case of 2006, significantly less fluctuation in the number of votes from election to election, which made this year’s race an uphill battle for Tsai Ing-wen. It also means it is hard to estimate how many votes she might have garnered on the basis of being a woman. This is not to say that getting to the point of being a presidential candidate and coming so close isn’t remarkable in and of itself. On the contrary, many countries with more established democracies in Europe have never had a female candidate, so it is an impressive achievement indeed and says many good things of Taiwanese society.

Tsai Ing-wen is a very intelligent and intellectual woman who brought real depth to her party and forced people to take it more seriously. Departing from the extreme populism of the past, she strived to ensure that people saw that the DPP can be structured and offer a feasible alternative to the KMT. Whereas in other countries her gender would have been a massive issue remarked on constantly, to Taiwan’s credit it wasn’t a huge point in general, and she herself never made it one of the defining characteristics of her campaign.

In a particular example of just how little focus has been given on the fact that Tsai Ing-wen is a woman, both parties condemned former DPP chairman Shih Ming-the’s comments earlier in 2011 when he claimed that Tsai Ing-wen should reveal her sexual orientation, implying that she might be gay solely based on the fact that she is single. The comments also received strong criticism from gay rights and women’s groups who were outraged by the intrusion into her private life. Certain KMT members, however, insinuated that the comments might have been a subtle tactic by the DPP to get some sympathy votes. These accusations were fervently denied by the DPP, and Tsai Ing-wen herself gracefully declined to comment. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to consider the possibility that the KMT might have used her gender, if not in a direct fashion, then maybe in an implied one, as a weapon to further their belief that they are the only party fit to govern the island.

This KMT belief was strengthened by the 2006 corruption case involving DPP ex-president Chen Shui-bian mentioned above, which sadly seemed to point out that this exceptional woman’s race was doomed from the start. Unfortunately, this had nothing to do with her personal campaign, and everything to do with the recent history of her party. The messy trial and corruption problems of the recent past have dynamited the people’s trust in the DPP, and made it virtually impossible to win on this occasion. Others have pointed out to me the atrocities the KMT committed during its time in command; but to the voters, the most recent event is always the most vivid, and the DPP’s betrayal of the people’s trust is still fresh in people’s minds. At the end, this has to be the biggest contributing factor to the failure of Tsai Ing-wen’s failed campaign.

To extrapolate from Tsai Ing-wen’s particular case, the status of women in Taiwanese politics is looking positive. According to a United Nation’s survey, Taiwan is the fourth country in the world, and the first in Asia, when it comes to women’s rights. For such a small country and such a recent democracy, this is a monumental achievement. Moreover, over 20% of legislators in Taiwan are female, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising to see more female politicians, such as Tsai Ing-wen, little by little taking back a part of society that is usually heavily restricted to men. Hopefully she will help open the floodgates and start a new trend in which more and more Taiwanese women actively attempt to get involved in politics.

All things considered, I believe that Tsai Ing-wen’s gender was never the issue, but she was rather a crimeless victim of her party’s past. Sadly, if she had been the candidate in 2016, she might have stood a genuine chance, for she is a likeable, smart woman who seems to have a knack for politics. Finally, though, it appears my KMT friend was right, and it seems that her dreams of being president were just illusions, never to be realized.

Photograph by David Reid



Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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