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Explainer: President Tsai Ing-wen faces mainland-friendly challenger Han Kuo-yu as Taiwan heads to the polls

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is seeking a second term against the main challenger Han Kuo-yu in Saturday’s elections. 

Tsai hails from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and has been campaigning on a platform of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty against threats from Beijing.

taiwan Taipei - Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (34) (Copy)

Taiwan. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Han is from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang party (KMT) and is pushing for warmer relations with Taiwan’s giant authoritarian neighbour.

Here are profiles of the candidates:


Tsai Ing-wen 

Tsai made history in 2016 when she became Taiwan’s first female leader in a landslide election victory, as the public grew wary of the KMT’s perceived cosiness with Beijing over the previous eight years.

But it has been far from smooth sailing since the 63-year-old took the helm.

Tsai Ing-wen.

Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Tsai Ing-wen Facebook.

Beijing rebuffed her calls for talks and instead set about isolating Taiwan because Tsai refuses to acknowledge the idea that the island is part of a “one China”.

It cut off official communication, ramped up military and economic pressure, froze Taiwan out of major international bodies and poached seven of the island’s dwindling diplomatic allies.

On the domestic front, her government’s push for a controversial reform agenda — most notably pension cuts and legalising gay marriage — saw her approval ratings dive.

But in the last year, her fortunes have rebounded, going from below 20 points behind at her nadir to significantly ahead of Han.

Analysts say bellicose threats from Beijing and ongoing massive protests in Hong Kong have helped fuel her resurgence as voters fret about the shadow cast by communist China, which views Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to seize it one day.

Born into a wealthy family, Tsai was an academic and a trade negotiator before she entered politics.

Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, she has frequently had to battle misogynistic insults in a political culture where male veterans have historically dominated.

She lost her first presidential bid in 2012, but stayed the course and won increased support from within her own party and the public ahead of her 2016 victory.

Her 2020 campaign has remained largely gaffe-free as she pushes the idea that the DPP will stand up to China and maintain Taiwan’s position as one of Asia’s most progressive democracies.

While the economy has fared well during her tenure, it remains her Achilles heel with opponents saying the DPP has needlessly antagonised China and left Taiwan struggling as a result.

Han Kuo-yu 

Han Kuo-yu fits the current zeitgeist for populist outsiders who shake up the old political establishment.

Han Kuo-yu

Han Kuo-yu. Photo: Apple Daily.

In the last two years, the 62-year-old has journeyed from relative obscurity to KMT presidential candidate, backed by a fervent base of supporters that local media have dubbed the “Han tide”.

But he has struggled to maintain his stellar rise since winning his party’s primary.

Written off by many KMT bigwigs, Han shot to political stardom in 2018 when he swept the mayoralty of Kaohsiung, a city in the south of Taiwan that had long been a DPP heartland.

He then saw off challenges by billionaire Foxconn founder Terry Gou and other veteran politicians to seize the primary.

Han has projected a plain-talking “everyman” image, using his modest upbringing and experience of unemployment to appeal to grassroots voters.

He has shown a knack for using the criticism to his advantage. When a spokesman for Tsai dismissed Han as something of a country bumpkin by calling him an “earthen steamed bun”, he responded by presiding over a steamed bun cooking competition.

Han Kuo-yu, James Soong and Tsai Ing-wen

Han Kuo-yu, James Soong and Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Presidential debate screenshot.

Han has described January’s vote as a choice between “peace or crisis” with China, campaigning on the slogan “Taiwan safe, people rich” with promises to restore warmer ties with Beijing and boost the economy.

That message appeals to many, especially those whose businesses rely on the much larger mainland economy.

But it has left Han vulnerable to criticism that he is too friendly towards Beijing, especially after he met senior Chinese officials during a trip to the mainland last year.

Han’s plain-talking has also resulted in gaffes on the campaign trail as well as accusations that he is a “runaway mayor” who promised to bring jobs and investment to Kaohsiung only to run for president instead.

He remains significantly behind in most polls. But Han has often been written off in the past, only to prove his detractors wrong once the votes are cast.


Here are some key facts about the self-ruled democratic island, which has its own currency, flag, military and government but is not recognised as an independent state by the UN and most nations.

taiwan Taipei - Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (34) (Copy)

Taiwan. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

 China split 

After being defeated by the Communist Party in 1949, China’s nationalist government fled to the island province of Taiwan 180 kilometres (110 miles) off the mainland.

President Chiang Kai-shek, joined by two million supporters, set up his authoritarian Republic of China (ROC) government in Taipei. This remains Taiwan’s official name.

The Communists established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, and have since insisted the island must be reintegrated, threatening force should it declare independence.

In 1991 Taiwan lifted emergency rule, unilaterally ending the state of war with China, and has emerged a vibrant liberal democracy. The first direct talks between Beijing and Taipei were held two years later.

Relations plummeted with the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rejects Beijing’s “one China” principle.

Struggle for recognition 

Today home to 23 million people, the island has been progressively squeezed off the international stage by the more powerful Beijing.

The ROC government held a seat at the United Nations until the world body switched recognition to Beijing in 1971, and other countries and international groups soon followed suit.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, agreeing it was the only representative of China.

taiwan flag protest july 1

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

But the United States has remained deliberately ambiguous on Taiwan’s future status and is bound by an act of Congress to maintain de facto diplomatic ties, as well as supply the island with weapons to defend itself.

Over the years Beijing has convinced most countries to sever diplomatic ties with Taipei and keep it out of international bodies such as the World Health Organization.

Last year the Solomon Islands and Kiribati became the latest to defect, leaving Taiwan recognised by just 15 states — most of them minnows in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, as well as the Vatican.

Electronics giant 

Taiwan’s export-based economy is one of the largest in Asia, but is dwarfed by that of China on which it depends for much of its business.

Transformed into a major tech manufacturing hub, the island is home to industry giants such as Foxconn, the world’s largest electronic devices manufacturer, which assembles gadgets for major brands including Apple and Huawei.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the world’s leading contract microchip maker, also supplying Apple and other tech giants.

Despite the global trade war, Taiwan posted third-quarter GDP growth of 2.9 percent last year, far outpacing neighbours such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

Asian pioneer 

Last May, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise gay marriage. It held its first same-sex weddings days later.

It is also a leader in gender equality, with 38 percent of seats in the 2016-elected parliament held by women, the highest proportion in Asia.

Tsai, who is running for re-election on Saturday, is its first female president.

taiwan lgbt gay flag

File photo: Taiwan Scenery Gallery.

Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building, at more than 500 metres (1,670 feet), until 2010 when it was overtaken by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

Indigenous inhabitants 

The vast majority of Taiwan’s population are Han Chinese, with just two percent from its original indigenous tribes.

Most scholars consider Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia as the original source of the Austronesians, who include people in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, as well as New Zealand’s Maoris, and Polynesians in Hawaii.

Taiwan’s indigenous people suffered cultural and economic catastrophe once settlers landed on the island’s shores from the 17th century.

Tsai, the first president with partial indigenous ancestry, via her grandmother, made history in 2016 when she formally apologised for the past.

But indigenous groups remain marginalised, with wages about 40 percent below the national average and higher unemployment.

Explainer: President Tsai Ing-wen faces mainland-friendly challenger Han Kuo-yu as Taiwan heads to the polls