Taiwan’s New Balancer-in-Chief

TOKYO – Even as many of the world’s electorates – most notably in the United States – are tilting toward the extremes, voters in Taiwan have bucked the trend and chosen the middle road. The election on January 16 of Tsai Ing-wen, Chair of the Democratic Progressive Party, as President is a signal that, however hesitant Taiwanese voters may be about entering into a deeper embrace with China, they also want to avoid a rupture in the relationship with their powerful neighbor and former antagonist.

Tsai, who will be Taiwan’s first female president, is said to have once supported Taiwanese independence, but she avoided expressing similar sentiments during the campaign, pledging instead to maintain the status quo. Indeed, she was careful to distance herself from her mentor, former President Lee Teng-hui, an outspoken supporter of a clear break with China.

Tsai’s victory over the China-friendly Kuomintang implies that relations with the mainland – which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that it will eventually reclaim – will be considerably more measured. Moreover, as a former law professor, she is likely to be a stickler for details in any negotiations with China.

Ironically, Tsai’s academic background (she studied at Cornell University and the London School of Economics) was probably one of the reasons for her loss to President Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 election – a campaign in which she appeared stiff and ill at ease with the give-and-take of politics. But in the last four years, her rhetorical skills and campaign manner have improved dramatically – to the point that her relaxed, animated persona is particularly popular among young voters.