TAIPEI – Taiwan appeared all but certain to elect a female president Saturday, underscoring the vast political gains women have made over the island’s decades-long transition from authoritarianism to thriving democracy.
While the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen would hardly be the first Asian woman elected head of state, she would be the first to rise to the top without having been the wife, daughter or sibling of a powerful man.
About a third of the 113 lawmakers elected to the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, in the last polls in 2012 were women. In Asia, only East Timor has a higher percentage, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women make up about 20 percent of the U.S. Congress.
The picture is much different in China, the one-party communist behemoth that claims Taiwan as its own territory. No women sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of communist power, and just two on the 25-member Politburo one rung below it.
Tsai, who holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, has said that while a woman president would be a sign of further social progress, the Taiwanese public seems more than ready for such a development.
“Of course, there are some people in Taiwan that are still rather traditional and they have some hesitation in considering a woman president. But among the younger generation, I think they are generally excited about the idea of having a woman leader. They think it is rather trendy,” Tsai said in a speech to the Council on Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. last year.
The fact that Tsai has prevailed in the rough-and-tumble world of Taiwanese politics adds even greater burnish to her credentials, said political scientist Alexander Huang of Taiwan’s Tamkang University.
“Taiwan people are smart, because they know that Dr. Tsai has been able to deal with very strong contenders within the DPP, and they are all senior politicians, they are all male politicians,” Huang said in Taipei.
Most polls show Tsai, 59, holding a double-digit lead over her rival Eric Chu of the ruling Kuomintang.
Originally it had been an all-woman race, with Tsai facing off against the Nationalist legislator Hung Hsiu-chu, who was replaced after her abrasive style was seen as alienating voters.
While Taiwan traditionally was a strongly patriarchal society — its Chinese Confucian culture was overlaid with 50 years of Japanese colonialism — women have long enjoyed access to education and work outside the home. Their success in politics is in part due to a constitutional amendment and party quotas setting aside some seats for them, though women currently exceed those quotas in parliament.
Taiwanese women played a high-profile role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy, beginning with the opposition movement in the 1970s. Annette Lu, who was a legislator before serving two terms as vice president, was among the prominent activists arrested and tried in a seminal 1979 incident that galvanized the opposition and eventually led to the founding of the DPP.
Even earlier, Taiwan boasted one of the world’s most famous Asian woman, Soong Mei-ling, the wife of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, who relocated his Kuomintang government to Taiwan in 1949 after the communist takeover of the Chinese mainland.
During World War II, Soong famously addressed the U.S. Congress. Decades later she tried but failed to dictate the political succession following the 1988 death of her stepson, Chiang Ching-kuo.
Women in Taiwanese politics today achieved their positions almost entirely through their own efforts, unlike other top women leaders in Asia who owe their prestige at least in part to their family connections.
Women in China appear to have substantially fewer political opportunities. Even in the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, less than a quarter of the nearly 3,000 members are female. The country’s most powerful female politician, vice premier and Politburo member Liu Yandong, is the daughter of one of the communist state’s founding fathers.
Additionally, China routinely cracks down on nongovernmental groups it fears could challenge communist authority, shutting off a key route to civic engagement. That included the detentions of a number of prominent feminists last year ahead of International Women’s Day, apparently over their plans to raise public awareness over domestic violence.
Western Kentucky University political scientist Timothy Rich, an expert on Taiwanese politics, said a win by Tsai could help catalyze incremental change in China.
“After all, if China maintains its position that Taiwan is part of China and Taiwan can elect a female leader, then it stands to reason that the Communist Party will be under greater pressure to appoint women to positions of power,” he said.