Profile: Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's first female president

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president in 2016

Tsai Ing-wen made history in 2016 as Taiwan's first female president - but she did not have an easy first term.

Attempts to promote green energy ended with her being accused of nearly causing an electricity shortage, while the offer of two days off a week for all workers was rejected amid allegations of hurting, rather than increasing, workers' earnings and holiday.

Making Taiwan the first Asian society where gay marriage is legal - a move which earned her plaudits around the world - also damaged her popularity at home.

Whether she would even run for a second term was uncertain, with a former subordinate challenging for her party's nomination and - at one point - her approval rating hitting the 15% mark.

But it seems that her biggest headache - China - was the very thing that helped her decisively win another four years in office in the January 2020 elections.

'Stand with freedom'

Ms Tsai, 63, has placed herself as a defender of Taiwan's sovereignty against China's view that the island must one day be unified with the mainland.

Her main rival from the Kuomintang (KMT) party, Han Kuo-yu, pushed for closer relations with China.

But as anti-China protests swept Hong Kong in 2019, fears of what it could mean for Taiwan's future began to rise - as, it seems, did Ms Tsai's fortunes.

Her campaign pushed the notion that her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), would stand up to Beijing and keep Taiwan a liberal democracy.

"Choosing Tsai Ing-wen... means we choose our future and choose to stand with democracy and stand with freedom," Ms Tsai told reporters the day before the country went to the polls.

In a landslide victory she took just over 57% of the ballot - more than eight million votes - with Mr Han trailing on 38%.

Media caption,
China and its influence is a key issue in Taiwan's election

Ms Tsai is the youngest of 11 children, born in a coastal village in the south of Taiwan. She moved to the capital Taipei when she was 11. Her mixed ethnicity - Hakka father and Taiwanese mother - has been cited as one of the traits that helped her connect to supporters.

She also has a grandmother who is from one of the non-Chinese indigenous groups in Taiwan.

A law graduate of the National Taiwan University, Ms Tsai completed her master's degree at Cornell University Law School in 1980 and went on to earn a doctorate degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1984.

In the 1990s, she was a negotiator for Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization. She was then asked to serve on the National Security Council as an adviser to former President Lee Teng-hui.

Ms Tsai joined the DPP in 2004 and rose quickly to become its chairwoman four years later, when the party suffered a heavy defeat in the presidential elections.

Her predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, lost to Ma Ying-jeou at the polls in 2008, and was later jailed for corruption.

It was her style and bearing when she appeared on the political scene which set her apart from the rest of the DPP "old guard", something that has worked to her advantage in attracting younger voters.

Despite splits and factionalism in the party, Ms Tsai was able to rally the support she needed to rejuvenate the DPP. Under her leadership, it has performed much better in local elections.

Her first attempt at running for president failed in 2012, but she continued to build on her successes. Four years later, she was elected.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Ms Tsai had mixed successes in her first term

Her first term in office saw Taiwan's minimum wage, investments and stocks rise. Social services, including childcare and elderly care, and public housing also received a boost.

But exports have fallen and average GDP growth in her first four years - around 2.7% - is lower than that under her predecessor's first term, even though he had faced a global slowdown.

Average real monthly salary increased slightly, but it was the same as 16 years ago due to inflation - and still the lowest among the four little Asian dragon economies.

Ms Tsai also failed to tackle a key cause of high housing prices and the wealth gap - a tax system that fails to adequately tax property investors.

Beijing, meanwhile, turned up the pressure on Taiwan after she refused to acknowledge "The 1992 consensus", the vaguely-worded agreement which says Taiwan is part of "One China".