The Leaderboard: Tsai Ing-wen

The Leaderboard profiles the people behind the policies of the Asia-Pacific.Who is she?

Tsai Ing-wen is the chair of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). A legal scholar, Tsai holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics. She began her public service career in 1993 as an appointed official in Kuomintang (KMT) president Lee Tung-hui’s administration. Tsai went on to successively serve as DPP president Chen Shui-bian’s Mainland Affairs Council chair, an at-large DPP legislator, and Vice Premier before assuming the DPP’s top position in 2008.

As the DPP candidate in the 2012 presidential election, she ran on a platform of political reform and opposition to the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) brokered by incumbent KMT president Ma Ying-jeou. Though she lost to Ma and resigned as DPP chair soon after, she regained her leadership position in the party last March. Tsai is predicted to reprise her role as the DPP candidate in the 2016 presidential election.


Tsai Ing-wen during her previous term as chair of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party. Source: David Reid’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Why is she in the news?

The DPP’s overwhelming success in the November 29 “nine-in-one” local elections is another step forward in Tsai’s political comeback. Buoyed by voter dissatisfaction with the KMT’s inability to address domestic problems, her party dominated most key races, winning 13 of 22 cities and counties. The magnitude of the DPP’s victory is widely seen as a crushing rebuke of KMT policies. Though the election centered on local issues, the DPP’s gains may give them a leg-up in the upcoming presidential election.

What can we expect from her?

As the likely 2016 DPP presidential candidate, Tsai will have to face serious questions regarding her cross-Strait policy. Tsai may interpret both the nine-in-one election and the recent Sunflower Movement as a mandate from the Taiwanese electorate to rein in the Ma administration’s expansion of cross-Strait economic ties. At the same time, Tsai will likely endorse a continuation of the previous administration’s cross-Strait dialogue while avoiding the fiery pro-independence rhetoric of previous DPP president Chen Shui-bian.

Nonetheless, moderation is not a platform unto itself. Tsai and the DPP have yet to articulate a coherent cross-Strait policy of their own. In 2012, her ambiguous cross-Strait policy concerned voters and may have contributed to her defeat in the presidential election. In order to take full advantage of the momentum of the nine-in-one elections, Tsai and the DPP will need to develop a clear alternative vision for cross-Strait policy ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign.


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