Taiwan's presidential race: Profiles of the candidates

(From left) Taiwan's presidential candidates James Soong, Eric Chu and Tsai Ing-wen joining hands at the start of their first televised debate in Taipei on Dec 27, 2015.
(From left) Taiwan's presidential candidates James Soong, Eric Chu and Tsai Ing-wen joining hands at the start of their first televised debate in Taipei on Dec 27, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Three candidates are vying to become president in Taiwan on Saturday (Jan 16), in a critical vote likely to see the island elect its first female leader and turn its back on Beijing.

Policy towards China, Taiwan's national identity and the flagging economy are key issues for frustrated voters, who are expected to punish the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) after eight years in power.

Here are profiles of the candidates:

The DPP's TSAI ING-WEN

Held up by supporters as the saviour of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ms Tsai is vying to become Taiwan's first female president and has said she admires later former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

If elected, the quietly spoken scholar-turned-politician would take the DPP to its second-ever victory over the KMT after pro-independence advocate Chen Shui-bian.

Under Chen's 2000-2008 leadership, tensions escalated between Taiwan and China, which still sees the self-ruling island as part of its territory since a split in 1949 after a civil war on the mainland.

Ms Tsai, 59, has walked a careful path over her China strategy after losing her presidential bid in 2012, a defeat widely attributed to her Beijing-sceptic approach.

This time Ms Tsai's message is that she wants to maintain the "status quo" in cross-strait ties.

But the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party, and opponents say relations will inevitably deteriorate as Ms Tsai does not recognise the "one China" policy that Beijing considers the bedrock of warming ties.

Born into a wealthy family from southern Pingtung county, Ms Tsai studied law at National Taiwan University before gaining a master's degree from Cornell University and a doctorate from the London School of Economics.

She returned to Taiwan to teach law and began advising the KMT government on international trade and China policies.

Having studied in England in the 1980s, Ms Tsai said in a recent interview that she admired the versatility and strength of the "Iron Lady".

Ms Tsai took her first major government post under the DPP in 2000 as head of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's top China policy-making body, and was promoted to vice premier in 2006.

She only became a member of the DPP in 2004 and was appointed chairwoman in 2008 at its lowest ebb when, dogged by a string of corruption cases, it suffered a crushing defeat that ushered Ma into power.

A respected thinker and negotiator, publicity-shy Ms Tsai represents a sharp contrast to traditional DPP politicians who have a reputation for aggression and street smarts.

However, after leading the DPP to regional election victories, she has won increased support from the public and party members.

The KMT's ERIC CHU

Mr Eric Chu, chairman of Taiwan's embattled China-friendly KMT, was a reluctant candidate for the leadership, coming forward at the last minute for a party expected to lose the presidency - and possibly its majority in Parliament.

Mr Chu, 54, the mayor of New Taipei City, only stepped up in October when the party voted to replace its initial candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, who hemorrhaged support over her pro-China stance.

The former accounting professor is popular among the more open-minded younger ranks within the KMT, but has found it difficult to make progress as public opinion is increasingly sceptical over the party's friendly dealings with China and the island's economic woes.

A number of polls show Mr Chu's support is around 20 per cent, barely half of that for the DPP's Ms Tsai.

With the presidency a long shot, observers say Mr Chu is campaigning primarily in support of the party's legislative nominees in a last-ditch bid to prevent the KMT losing its parliamentary majority.

Mr Chu was born into a political family with strong KMT ties and obtained his doctorate in accounting from New York University in 1991. He started his political career in 1999 after being elected into parliament as legislator for northern Taoyuan county.

He went on to become Taoyuan county chief in 2001 and New Taipei City mayor in 2010.

Mr Chu was elected by party members unopposed as KMT chairman in 2015, succeeding President Ma Ying-jeou, who resigned from the post over the KMT's heavy defeat in 2014 local elections.

The PFP's James Soong

Conservative James Soong is staging his third presidential bid, and is likely to draw some voters away from the KMT - the party he shunned after decades of service.

The 73-year-old outsider is chairman of the China-friendly People First Party (PFP), which holds just three of 113 seats in the legislature.

Polls show that Mr Soong is lagging behind Mr Chu, but he is hoping his campaign will boost his party's standing in the parliamentary elections.

A former KMT stalwart, Mr Soong ran as an independent in 2000 after he failed to win the party's nomination for president.

Following his narrow defeat to the DPP's Chen Shui-bian in that election, he set up the PFP the same year.

While Soong has never come as close to winning the presidency as he did in 2000 and is criticised by some for political flip-flopping, he retains a support base that sees him as capable and experienced.

Others says he is an unpredictable opportunist who has veered between being an ally and a foe of the KMT - Mr Soong has in the past tried to forge alliances with various parties, including the DPP.

Born in China, the son of a KMT army general, Mr Soong settled in Taiwan as a child in 1949 after Nationalist troops fled the mainland following defeat by Communist forces in the civil war.

Mr Soong served in the KMT for decades and his political career peaked in 1994 after he was voted Taiwan's provincial governor, overseeing all the island's local administrations.

In 2004 he was running mate to KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan, who almost unseated the DPP's Chen in a controversial election marred by an election-eve shooting.