TAIPEI • Taiwan's ruling Kuomin-tang (KMT) has officially endorsed wild-card candidate Hung Hsiu-chu to run for president next year, as the deeply divided party faces a battle to regain public support.
Known as "xiao la jiao" or "little chilli" for her straight-talking style, Ms Hung's conservative pro-China views fly in the face of voter sentiment as fears grow over increased Beijing influence.
Ms Hung, 67, will take on Ms Tsai Ing-wen, chairman of the main opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, with Taiwan's China policy at the heart of the duel.
Other candidates are set to enter the race, but the two women are currently the major contenders, with veteran Tsai, 58, the clear favourite.
If either wins, it would be the first time for a woman to lead Taiwan.
Concern about Taiwan's warming ties with China was one reason behind the Beijing-friendly KMT's rout in November's local elections, a barometer for the presidential vote next January.
With the party tipped for another defeat, KMT big hitters have sat on the sidelines, leaving the unlikely Ms Hung as the only candidate.
Members responded with applause and a standing ovation yesterday to signal their endorsement of her nomination after chairman Eric Chu put her forward at a KMT party congress in Taipei, the final rubber stamp after the standing committee backed her last month.
The KMT candidate is traditionally endorsed by applause from members, rather than by a vote.
"As long as we stand together, we can win the election," said Ms Hung, in a week which saw five KMT legislators who had criticised the party being expelled.
She sought to allay fears over her China policy - which has alienated some in her own party - by taking a more moderate line.
"We will bear people's opinions in mind and give priority to Taiwan's interests, and continue fighting for the peaceful development of both sides," she said.
"Her nomination is the beginning of challenges to come," said analyst Tung Chen-yuan, a professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei. "How she will consolidate support from strong factions is a big problem."
Ms Hung, currently deputy parliamentary speaker, saw her popularity soar after she put in her nomination bid. But it has since dipped on concern over her China message.
Taiwan split from China in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary.
The KMT espouses a "one China, different interpretation" model - tacitly agreed on with Beijing and known as the "1992 consensus" - which avoids a declaration of independence but asserts the island's sovereignty.
President Ma Ying-jeou reiterated the importance of the consensus at the congress yesterday. Ms Hung seemed prepared to toe the line, saying she would "abide by the 1992 consensus" if elected president.
"Ms Hung does not seek independence from China and hopes to sign a peace treaty with the mainland," said her campaign spokesman Yu Tzu-hsiang.
Associate Professor Lo Chih-cheng, head of the political science department at Soochow University in Taipei, said: "Beijing is taking a cautious attitude. It has not launched personal attacks on Tsai nor criticised her position... Beijing is leaving room to deal with Taiwan's future leader. Anything it does now would run the risk of upsetting Taiwanese people."
With Taiwan's economy stagnating, Ms Hung also sought to appeal to the grassroots in her speech by referring to the poverty she experienced as a child.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS