"Gender equality in Taiwan is fairly close to standards in Western countries, but it would undoubtedly be a breakthrough for a woman to be elected president here based on her own qualifications and efforts," National Taiwan University professor of atmospheric science and environmentalist Hsu Kuang- jung tells IPS.
Early opinion polls in mainstream media indicate that Tsai is now running neck to neck with incumbent President and right-wing Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou, 61, who was formally nominated by his party Apr. 27.
Taiwan began its transition to democratic government with the lifting in July 1987 of a four-decade old martial law decree imposed by a previous KMT authoritarian regime led by the late autocrat Chiang Kai- shek.
After narrowly defeating rival DPP contender and former premier Su Tseng-cheng in a national primary decided by opinion polls held Apr. 24-25, the 55-year-old Tsai is scheduled to be named by her party’s central executive committee as its candidate May 4.
Her path was partly paved by Annette Lu, a pioneer of Taiwan’s feminist movement and a former political prisoner under the former authoritarian KMT regime. She served as vice-president for eight years under former DPP president Chen Shui-bian from May 2000 to May 2008.
Born in Taiwan’s southern Pingtung County on Aug. 31, 1956, Tsai worked for several central government agencies after earning a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics in 1984.
In the mid-1990s, Tsai became a councillor in the National Security Council under Taiwan’s first native born president Lee Teng-hui and was a key drafter of Lee’s statement in July 1999 that relations between Taiwan and China had become "special state-to-state relations" in the wake of Taiwan’s democratisation.
Tsai served as chairwoman of the Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, which handled Taiwan’s policy towards China. She was a DPP legislator and vice-premier during the previous DPP administration.
Tsai took the helm of the DPP after the grassroots party suffered an electoral debacle in early 2008 as Ma won the presidency by a 58 percent landslide and the KMT won a three-fourths legislative majority.
Offering a professional image above DPP factional disputes, Tsai gradually rebuilt the opposition party’s unity, revived its reputation for competent governance and clean politics and led her party to win nine of 13 legislative by-elections and score gains in mayoral polls during the past three years.
In her first direct election test last November, Tsai turned in a stronger than expected performance but lost the race for the strongly pro-KMT New Taipei Municipality to former KMT vice-premier Eric Chu by a narrow margin.
However, Tsai’s emergence as a national political leader was also due to the disappointing performance of the incumbent.
A survey of 1,001 Taiwan adults in mid-April carried out by the Global Views Survey Research Company found that less than 33 percent were satisfied with Ma’s performance while almost 57 percent were dissatisfied and that Tsai enjoys a considerably higher level of trust form the electorate.
Political analysts say that Ma’s ratings have slipped for numerous reasons, notably the failure to reach his campaign promise to boost annual average economic growth to over six percent, perceptions of erosion in Taiwan’s international status, incompetent handling of disastrous floods that hit southern Taiwan in August 2009, a decline in public participation in policy making, and a lack of transparency in cross-strait negotiations with the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan’s human rights ratings and international standing have also ebbed.
For example, since Ma took office, Taiwan’s rating for news freedom slipped in annual global surveys conducted by the New York-based Freedom House from 32nd in the world in 2008, the last year of DPP administration, to 48th in its most recent study, released May 2.
Key issues during the campaign are likely to range from economic development visions, Taiwan’s troubled relationship with the PRC, environmental and energy policy, poverty and social equity.
"Since the election is likely to be very close, both Ma and Tsai will have to respond to certain degrees to civil society concerns for the environment, and neither can ignore the question of rising poverty and wealth inequality and globalisation," says Taiwan Labour Front Secretary-General Sun You-lien.
During the primary campaign, Tsai called for the realisation of a "nuclear free home" through the phase-out of all nuclear power plants by 2025, supported environmentalist calls to cancel a major state-backed petrochemical complex in western Taiwan, advocated a new direction that would emphasise creating jobs instead of boosting gross domestic product figures, and building a comprehensive social security system.
In outlining her views during four sets of debates before the DPP primary, Tsai said that Taiwan should foster its "economic dynamism and creativity" as an "oceanic nation" by deepening links with all major trading partners in a global framework to become "a shining star in Asia" instead of "single-mindedly embracing China" and turning into "a periphery to China."
"If Tsai wins, it will mark a great honour for Taiwan and an inspiration to other patriarchal East Asian societies, including China, that a woman can be president in Taiwan’s democracy," says Taiwan Solidarity Union Secretary-General Lin Chih-chia.
Nevertheless, a conservative backlash seems to be in the making as reflected by calls by some politicians and media for Tsai, who is unmarried, to reveal her sexual orientation.
Tsai refused to reply to such questions, saying that "if I respond, I will become an accomplice in promoting gender oppression."
"There is nothing wrong in any gender, any gender preference and marriage pattern and no one has the right to question others about such issues," said Tsai, who stated that Taiwan "needs more efforts to defend the human rights of all gender disadvantaged people."