Except in Australia and New Zealand, Asia has never had a female head of government who won office without the legacy of a famous husband, father, or brother. It certainly has had models of women leaders, such as Indira Gandhi in India or Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. Like them, two current women leaders, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh and Park Geun-hye of South Korea, rose to power based in large part on the famous name or political connections of a late male relative.
All this may change in January when the island nation of Taiwan is almost certain to elect a woman president in her own right, not on her birthright. On Sunday, the ruling party Kuomintang, or Nationalists, selected Hung Hsiu-chu as its presidential nominee. She will run against Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Both women have been bootstrap politicians within the two major parties. They also hold advanced degrees from Western universities.
Why would this progress for women matter? After all, Taiwan is often neglected on the world stage, isolated diplomatically by a China that sees the island as a renegade province, an unfinished remnant of its pre-1949 civil war. Taiwanese politics are often viewed in the context of China’s interests, such as whether a new president of Taiwan will formally declare independence from the mainland (and thus acknowledge a de facto independence). That question is indeed a main issue in Taiwan’s elections.
In Asia, however, models of democracy still resonate in a region that contains half of humanity. This has been especially true since the 1986 people’s power revolution in the Philippines. Taiwan began its transition to democracy in 1987, followed by South Korea, Indonesia, and to a degree, Myanmar (or Burma). In particular, Taiwan has shown that a country with a strong Confucian culture is compatible with plural politics, a fact not well received in China. In the ruling Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, only two of 25 members are women.
Electing a woman president in Taiwan will be the next chapter in Asia’s steady if bumpy progress toward democracy. Its two presidential candidates have said it best:
“I hope this battle between two women will bring forth a whole new understanding and set an example of true democracy,” Ms. Hung said.
“In general terms, there is a preference for women candidates these days,” Ms. Tsai said. “[A]mong the younger generation, I think they are generally excited about the idea of having a woman leader. They think it is rather trendy.”
Taiwan took a big turn toward inclusive politics last year with a massive youth protest, known as the Sunflower Movement, triggered by a proposed trade pact with the mainland. At the same time, China has become more authoritarian, even arresting five core members of a feminist movement for peaceful protests against sexual harassment.
Despite its isolation, Taiwan’s democratic progress has given it more “soft power” than China’s expensive campaign to improve its tarnished image. Its people have absorbed the principles of individual rights and equality. Electing a woman as a natural leader based on her own qualities will set an example that will be hard to ignore.