Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has made a remarkable journey: Three years ago, after the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) defeat in both the legislative and presidential elections, she had the unenviable task of trying to get the party out of the doldrums. Today, after winning the primary to become the DPP’s presidential candidate, Tsai has already made history as the nation’s first female presidential candidate.
Next year, she has an excellent chance of beating the incumbent, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Her popularity has soared after winning the DPP presidential primary on April 27. Many opinion polls show that she is neck and neck with Ma. Some polls even show her edging ahead.
What are the reasons for this amazing turnaround?
For one, it is Tsai herself.
She has been low-key and unassuming, but at the same time has shown steely persistence in working the DPP back into the position of a viable opposition party. She has intelligently and systematically solved problems, and moved the DPP into a position where it can get broad support from the populace. She has been able to regain the trust and support of the party that was lost in the tumultuous days at the end of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration.
Since becoming chairperson of the DPP, Tsai has brought many changes to the party. She proved that her soft, moderate approach was more effective with floating voters. She has broadened the power base of the DPP by attracting young voters.
She has also lifted political debate to a higher level with her soft-spoken style, and her rational and analytical approach to issues. Her leadership style is in stark contrast to that of Ma. Tsai has the ability to connect and reach out to grassroots supporters, while Ma is aloof and has never been able to shed his elitist image.
Ma himself also helped bring about a turnaround in the fortunes of the DPP. He came to office by touting an image of competence and experience, but this image suffered severely when his government seemed incapable of reacting adequately to Typhoon Morakot in August 2009, while a series of subsequent blunders further undermined the credibility of his administration.
However, Ma suffered his most significant loss of credibility through his most touted achievement: his China policy.
During the 2008 election campaign he had championed his close association with Taiwan and its future. He went down south for several “home-stays” and generally emphasized how he “belonged” to Taiwan.
However, after his inauguration, he started to travel a diametrically opposite course: that of enhancing relations with China. One agreement after another was penned, culminating in the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which was presented as a panacea that would lift the nation out of its economic malaise.
While all this happened, a significant erosion took place on a number of fronts. Ma’s policies undermined Taiwan’s sovereignty, its democracy and its judicial system. Time and again, Ma focused narrowly on relations with China at the expense of basic freedoms.
Each time, Tsai was there to remind Ma — and the public — that Taiwan needs to stay true to the principles of freedom and democracy, that economic growth should not take place at the expense of workers, that relations with China are no substitute for Taiwan’s own space.