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Taiwan elects its first female president: Tsai Ing-wen

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

During her visit to Yamaguchi Prefecture last October, Tsai Ing-wen, leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, posed beneath a calligraphic text by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that read “solitary and motionless,” words from an ancient Chinese commentary on the “I Ching,” or “The Book of Changes.”

On Saturday, things changed in Taiwan as voters elected Tsai as the first female president of the self-ruled island of 23 million people.

Beijing not only has to now contend with a new president in Taiwan who is wary of China, but with a fresh batch of activists-turned-lawmakers from the island’s boisterous Sunflower Movement.

Protesters from the student-led movement, which dramatically occupied the island’s parliament in 2014 over a trade pact with Beijing, took their first step into mainstream politics after winning seats in Saturday’s parliamentary vote.

Both Tsai and the protesters’ victory is symbolic of growing public resistance to Beijing after a rapprochement under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou of the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), which has sparked fears that Taiwan’s sovereignty is being eroded.

“It’s our first election battle, and we have a long way ahead of us,” said Huang Kuo-chang, an academic and leader of the Sunflower Movement who became a lawmaker Saturday.

His New Power Party (NPP) grew out of the protests and won five seats in parliament, making it the third-largest in the legislature.

“The NPP will not forget the principles of the Sunflower Movement. We will never compromise,” Huang, 42, said.

Rock star Freddie Lim, 39, was also among the successful NPP candidates, unseating a veteran KMT lawmaker in Taipei.

The tattooed death metal singer grabbed headlines with his screaming, headbanging campaign concerts ahead of the vote.

“I’m the first rocker in Asia to go to parliament,” said Lim after the victory. “This election shows anyone has the right to go into parliament to promote a better Taiwan.”

Student leaders of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy Umbrella Movement said Sunday they would seek closer ties with Taiwan after it elected a leader who has pledged to stand up to China.

“Whether it is the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty or the future of Hong Kong, we both face the China factor,” said Joshua Wong, the teenage face of the Umbrella Movement, which brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014 seeking fully free leadership elections.

“I think more exchange is very much needed,” Wong told a new conference in Taipei. The 19-year-old was in Taiwan as part of a prodemocracy group observing the elections.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous since being returned to China by Britain in 1997 and enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland, but there are fears those freedoms are being lost.

The prodemocracy rallies in Hong Kong were sparked when Beijing insisted on vetting candidates for the city’s next leader.

Tsai’s election victory Saturday came as no surprise.

Indeed, if the bookish Tsai sometimes appears “solitary and motionless,” much has changed since her first presidential bid four years ago.In 2012, Tsai not only lost to Ma, but her party suffered a crushing defeat in legislative polls, failing to secure enough seats to mount an effective opposition as Ma’s party, which has ruled Taiwan since 1945 except for an eight-year period of DPP rule between 2000 and 2008.

This time around, Tsai entered the race as a clear front-runner, helping to raise the DPP’s profile as a potential ruling party.

Her political rise has been remarkable, not least because it has been so quick and from relative obscurity.

Born in the southern county of Pingtung in 1956, Tsai’s family relocated to Taipei, where her father worked as a mechanic for the United States military.

As the youngest child of a reasonably well-off family, Tsai was encouraged to pursue her education, majoring in law at National Taiwan University before traveling abroad for advanced degrees from Cornell in New York and the London School of Economics.

Returning in the 1990s, she entered politics the hard way, beginning as a consultant for Taiwan’s eventually successful bid to join the World Trade Organization, and working her way up by way of a series of largely anonymous governmental tasks, including drafting former president Lee Teng-hui’s “special state-to-state” model for relations with China.

After the 2000 election of a DPP government, Tsai was given a high-profile appointment as chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Council — the government agency responsible for crafting cross-strait policy.

After joining the party in 2004, Tsai went on to serve briefly as legislator-at-large and vice premier, resigning in 2007 along with the rest of the Cabinet of outgoing Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang.

In 2008, Tsai became the first woman to lead the DPP since the party’s establishment in 1986. Two years later, she was re-elected to the position, defeating a more doctrinaire party stalwart.

Despite its 2012 defeat in presidential and legislative elections, the DPP has made significant gains under Tsai’s leadership, with an impressive showing in the 2014 nationwide local elections.

Widely seen as “unorthodox” by DPP political standards, Tsai is temperamentally relaxed and pragmatic. Since assuming the party’s top job, she has avoided former leader Chen Shui-bian’s brinkmanship and pressure politic, opting instead for a more conciliatory approach aimed at reducing tension and building consensus.

She has relatively little campaign experience, losing the only two elections outside the party she ever contested.

Yet if some call Tsai’s inexperience a liability, others say that it frees her from the factional baggage of party heavyweights. She also compensates with a strong support team.

Publicly, Tsai is regarded as wordy and academic. As a woman hoping to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of East Asian politics, Tsai rarely shows emotion.

Fifty-nine and single, she gets her way through the skillful manipulation of gender assumptions, while never taking deference for granted.

In her recent book, “Ing’s Clique,” a term she uses for those who have rallied around her, she describes herself as not the kind of person to spend time crying over failures and defeats.

On the night of losing the 2012 election, Tsai said she was too busy consoling supporters and urging them forward to worry about herself.

Afterward, by her account, she tried to understand the 2012 defeat, seeking answers from those who had found her and the DPP wanting.

Four years of such reflection gave her the confidence to believe her time has come, and evidently the people of Taiwan agreed.

Expectation can be dangerous, of course.

Many challenges lie ahead, including a stagnant economy, aging population and long-needed constitutional reform.

Solitary and motionless, perhaps.

But change still happens, and on Saturday it happened in Taiwan.