Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was the only one smiling at the rally on the night of Jan. 14, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate delivered her concession speech in Banciao District (板橋), New Taipei City (新北市).
Her supporters, aides and campaign staffers were not, sobbing over her larger-than-expected defeat — a loss of nearly 800,000 votes to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who was running for re-election — and a missed opportunity for the DPP to return to power.
“It was at that moment I realized we — and she — shall return,” said Hsu Chia-ching (徐佳青), campaign spokesperson for the 56-year-old DPP chairperson.
Hsu was among more than 6 million people who voted for the “unorthodox” Tsai, as she has been described, and believed she would be Taiwan’s first female president, marking the DPP’s comeback four years on from the humiliating loss it suffered in the 2008 presidential election.
As popular as she is now, Tsai was relatively unknown when she took over the party’s helm in 2008. To those who knew her, she was the soft-speaking former vice premier and Mainland Affairs Council chairperson.
Her background — a graduate of the London School of Economics — stood in sharp contrast to the DPP’s decade-long image, with its strong connection to grassroots culture and its hard-talking leaders.
Tsai herself admitted at the time that she was not familiar with the party, which was then troubled by factionalism, and said she had no idea which staffer belonged to which faction.
DPP members also had a hard time figuring out the political moderate, who stresses policy formulation over rhetoric and speaks little Taiwanese.
“The thoughts of a woman leader who knows very little about the party and a DPP chair who speaks little Taiwanese were initially shocking to everyone. She did not look like a politician at all,” DPP spokesperson Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) said.
However, things were different after Tsai initiated a successful small donation campaign to help the party achieve a balanced budget and led the DPP to a string of by-election victories in 2009.
Tsai’s popularity rose and DPP members started to believe in her. She went on to be re-elected as party chair and won the presidential nomination in April last year.
“We gradually realized that her determination to transform not only the DPP, but also Taiwanese politics in her own way was stronger than anyone could imagine,” Chen said of Tsai, who is an admirer of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady.
During her eight-and-a-half-month long presidential campaign, Tsai, known as a stickler for details, made life hard for her aides and DPP staffers.
She would stop her motorcade midway during campaign trips and ask to realign the vehicles if she thought they did not line up well, as well as double-check her campaign pledges before going on stage, saying: “We need to make sure this could be done.”
A campaign aide, who wished to remain anonymous, said he once advised Tsai to be bolder with her pledges and approach because “there is always a good and an evil side to every politician,” only to be rebuffed by Tsai.
“However, she earned everyone’s respect at the end of the day,” the aide said.
“I’ll be a happy man if she used more than 30 percent of what I wrote for her speech, while other politicians would turn my 300-word notes into a one-hour speech,” Yao Jen-to (姚人多), one of Tsai’s main speech writers, said of Tsai’s cautious personality.