On January 16, the people of Taiwan will go to the polls to elect a new president and new legislative representatives. Like the United States, Taiwan has a two-term limit on the presidency, which means that the incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou, must step down. And like the 2016 U.S. elections, the 2016 Taiwan elections are wide open.
Ma’s governing Kuomintang (KMT) party enters these elections in complete disarray. Its spring 2015 presidential primaries resulted in the nomination of a senior legislator named Hung Hsiu-chu, its first-ever female candidate for president. But then in an unprecedented move, she was displaced by party chairman Eric Chu at a special party convention held on October 17. Chu went on to claim Hung’s former place at the top of the ticket.
Chu is widely viewed as a placeholder candidate with a mandate not so much to win January's election as to prevent serious losses for the KMT, especially in the legislature. Tellingly, he has not resigned his position as mayor of New Taipei City, Taiwan's largest local government area. He has instead taken three months’ leave while an acting mayor watches over his suburban Taipei power base.
Opposing the KMT is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its candidate, Tsai Ing-wen. A veteran campaigner who lost to the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou in 2012, Tsai is widely expected to emerge from the polls as Taiwan’s first female president. She would also be only the second DPP president in Taiwan's history. Her predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, president from 2000–2008, was afterward convicted of corruption and is now out of jail on medical parole.
The lawyerly Tsai is a former college professor who likes to compare herself to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A better touchstone might be her fellow law professor U.S. President Barack Obama. On her father's side, Tsai is a member of Taiwan’s minority Hakka community, Taiwan’s largest minority group. The Hakka make up about 15 percent of their country’s population and have suffered from centuries been questioned in the past. Questions of ethnic and national identity have always been at the heart of Taiwan’s politics, but never more so than in the current election.
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