Meet Taiwan's presidential hopefuls: The accidental politician, the reluctant candidate and the old-timer

Taiwan's presidential hopefuls: Mr James Soong (left), Mr Eric Chu and Dr Tsai Ing-wen.
Taiwan's presidential hopefuls: Mr James Soong (left), Mr Eric Chu and Dr Tsai Ing-wen.PHOTO: EPA

IT'S a three-way fight for Taiwan's presidential election but one woman appears to be way ahead in the race.

Dr Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party is widely tipped to set history as Taiwan's first female president, polling about 40 per cent in opinion polls before the Jan 16 election.

That puts her ahead of her opponents, Mr Eric Chu from the ruling Kuomintang and Mr James Soong from the People First Party.

Here are some quick facts on the three candidates:

The accidental politician


Tsai Ing-wen waves to supporters during a campaign rally on Jan 3, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

  • Tsai Ing-wen, 59
  • Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman
  • Running mate: Chen Chien-jen, 64, health minister from 2003 to 2005

The DPP is hoping it will be second time lucky for Dr Tsai. She lost to KMT's Mr Ma Ying-jeou in the last election in 2012, but garnered a respectable 45.6 per cent of the vote.

Here's a look at her transformation from policy wonk to presidential hopeful.

1. The bespectacled former law academic was a policy wonk who rose to prominence when she was picked by then president Lee Teng-hui to head a group of legal experts to conduct research proving that Taiwan was not part of the People's Republic of China and to formulate a "two-states" theory.

2. Dr Tsai became the head of the Mainland Affairs Council, the Cabinet-level agency responsible for cross-strait policy, in the DPP administration. She joined the DPP in 2004 and was briefly vice-premier under former president Chen Shui-bian.

3. She cleaned up the image of the DPP in 2008 after it was discredited by the corruption scandals surrounding Mr Chen.

Dr Tsai wrote in her book: "In a mature democratic society, if there is no strong opposition party, then democratic politics will most likely regress.

"I will never be able to forgive myself if I choose not to do what I know I can."

4. The Hakka woman, who is single, is the youngest child of a self-made property developer who started out as a car mechanic.

Her parents had high expectations of all their children, and was disappointed that she did not score first in all her examinations, unlike her older siblings, she told a Taiwan news programme last year.

5. She had wanted to study history and archaeology, but pursued a law degree as her father wanted her to help with the legal matters of his business.

She has law degrees from National Taiwan University, Cornell University and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

6. The DPP officially supports independence for Taiwan but Dr Tsai has said she wants to preserve the "status quo" with China if she becomes president.

In a policy debate last month, she did not commit to a stance on the "1992 consensus" - a tacit agreement between the KMT and China which says there is "one China" with different interpretations. The DPP has never recognised the agreement.

"I believe cross-strait relations can remain stable... the 1992 consensus is an option, but it's not the only one," she said.


The reluctant candidate


Eric Chu (top right) greets supporters during an election campaign in Chiayi, southern Taiwan on Jan 5, 2016. 

  • Eric Chu, 54
  • Mayor of New Taipei and Kuomintang (KMT) chairman
  • Running mate: Wang Ju-hsuan, 54, lawyer and former Labour Minister

Mr Chu, who took over from Mr Ma as KMT chairman last year, was widely tipped to be the party's presidential candidate. But he disappointed party stalwarts by not initially stepping forward for the 2016 race.

Then three months ago, with the party's nominee Hung Hsiu-chu trailing in the polls, Mr Chu came forward to contest.

But throwing his hat into the ring so late in the race has hurt his chances - he has polled around 16 to 30 per cent in opinion polls.

1. The former accounting professor entered politics as a KMT legislator in 1999. He became Taoyuan county magistrate in 2001, and was re-elected in 2005. He was appointed Taiwan's vice-premier in 2009, becoming the youngest, at age 48 then, to hold that position.

2. He has been Mayor of New Taipei City since 2010, when he defeated Dr Tsai with a 5-per-cent margin.

During local elections last year that saw a KMT bloodbath, he was the only candidate from the party to retain his mayorship, albeit with a narrower margin than in 2010.

He had promised to complete his four-year term as New Taipei mayor, saying: "I will not run for the 2016 presidential election."

3. He earned a bachelor's degree in management from National Taiwan University in 1983. After his compulsory military service, he did a stint in the United States, getting his MBA in finance and a PhD in accounting at New York University and later, teaching at City University.

4. He is well-connected. His father Chu Chang-Hsing was a military man who became a provincial assemblyman in Taoyuan, and later joined the National Assembly. His mother came from a prominent family in the northern city.

The father of two is married to the daughter of Mr Kao Yu-jen, former speaker of the now-defunct Taiwan Provincial Assembly and chairman of technology firm Twinhead International Corp.

5. Mr Chu's has been careful to strike a moderate tone on cross-strait relations, saying that he hews to the so-called 1992 consensus. It acknowledges that there is one China, but allows both sides of the Taiwan Strait to have their own interpretation of what that "China" means.


The old-timer


James Soong (left) and his running mate Hsu Hsin-ying pose for reporters after their registration to take part in the 2016 presidential election on Nov 24, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

  • James Soong, 73
  • Founder of People First Party (PFP), a small party which is part of the pro-unification pan-blue coalition
  • Running mate: Hsu Hsin-ying, 43, founder of Minkuotang, another small pan-blue party

This is the veteran politician's third attempt at the top job.

Previously a powerful leader in the KMT, Mr Soong turned "rogue" in 2000 and ran as an independent against the party's chosen candidate Lien Chan. The schism in the party led to the DPP gaining power. He later founded his own party.

1. In the 1990s, Soong was an up and rising politician in the KMT whose popularity threatened to eclipse that of then president Lee Teng Hui.

His five years as the first and only directly-elected Taiwan governor from 1993 to 1998 laid the groundwork for his popular support. The now-defunct position effectively gave him rule of the entire island save for Taipei and Kaohsiung.

2. He had a squeaky-clean image as a man of the people. He penetrated deep into the complex network of local politics and was often seen mingling with ordinary Taiwanese. But he has also been criticised for milking media attention.

3. In 2000, he ran as an independent in the presidential race after failing to obtain the KMT's nomination, which went to the less popular Mr Lien. This split the pan-blue vote and gave the presidency to DPP's Mr Chen Shui-bian.

Mr Soong lost narrowly to Mr Chen despite being embroiled in a slush fund scandal, polling better than KMT's Mr Lien.

4. He later founded the PFP.

He joined in a coalition with the KMT for the 2004 election, and agreed to run as vice-president with Mr Lien. The duo lost to Mr Chen Shui-bian in the controversial election.

Mr Chen and then vice-president Annette Lu were both shot and had minor injuries the day before voting. Mr Chen went on to win re-election by a wafer-thin margin of 0.22 per cent. There were massive demonstrations, with protesters alleging that the shooting was staged to help him clinch the vote.

5. Mr Soong contested again in 2012 for president as a third candidate against President Ma and Dr Tsai. Despite being hailed as a kingmaker at first, he got fewer than 370,000 votes, or 2.8 per cent, putting paid to fears that he would dilute Mr Ma's support base.