Taiwan presidential hopeful picks Sars health minister as running mate

TAIPEI (AFP) - The frontrunner for the 2016 Taiwan presidential election, opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen, on Monday (Nov 16) named her running mate as the island's former health minister who was widely praised for leading the battle against the 2003 Sars outbreak.

Chen Chien-jen, health minister from 2003 to 2005, was credited with coordinating the response of central and local government and public and private medical services that enabled Taiwan to combat the epidemic.

"Like many people in Taiwan, I had been very much impressed by his calm and stable performance when he was named the chief of then Department of Health in 2003 when Taiwan was gripped by the most severe outbreak of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)," Tsai, chairwoman of the China-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told reporters.

Nearly 700 people were infected in Taiwan after the Sars outbreak in March 2003. The viral disease, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, forced the government to shut schools and public areas and claimed 84 lives on the island.

An independent, Chen, who served as an epidemiologist in universities in Taiwan and the United States for more than 25 years before joining the government in 2002, said he felt obliged to accept Tsai's offer, although he would have to suspend his academic career, given the current situation.

"Taiwan is facing a critical moment. Whether we walk towards paradise or hell, brightness or darkness, continued recession or reforms. All this would be decided in the January vote," Chen said.

Taiwan's export-reliant economy shrank 1.01 per cent year-on in the three months to September, the first contraction in six years, dragged down by worse-than-expected exports and domestic spending.

The DPP has criticised the Kuomintang government's China-friendly policies which critics claim have led local companies to focus on the mainland market and made the island especially vulnerable to the Chinese economic slowdown.

The DPP ticket will face Eric Chu, the presidential candidate of the Kuomintang party. Chu has yet to announced his running mate.

The Kuomintang is struggling to regain public support after its worst ever local election defeat last year, with its China policy a major factor.

Improved cross-strait relations since current President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008 have seen trade deals and a tourism boom, but many voters feel benefits have not trickled down to ordinary people and there are fears over increased Chinese influence.

Ma has hit back at opponents who have accused him of selling out by holding a historic summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore earlier this month.

China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification by force if necessary, even though the island has ruled itself for more than six decades since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

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