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Taiwan's first female president: Not 'if,' but 'who?'

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Chiang Ying-ying/AP

(Read caption) Backed by the ruling Nationalist Party members, Hung Hsiu-chu, a former teacher and current deputy legislative speaker, waves a flag as she is nominated as the party's candidate in the January presidential election Sunday in Taipei, Taiwan. The top two political parties in Taiwan have each nominated a woman for president in 2016, a historic first signaling acceptance of female leadership and kicking off a campaign highlighted so far by clashing views on ties with political rival China. Hung, who is supportive of friendly relations with China, will run against Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman and an advocate of more cautious relations with Beijing.

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The election of Taiwan’s first female president is almost guaranteed to be right around the corner.

The country’s ruling party and its major opposition party have each chosen female candidates to compete in the 2016 presidential election, the Associated Press reported.

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However, both candidates’ substantial political experience are expected to eclipse gender as a major consideration in the election, Ross Feingold, an adviser based in Taiwan for American political risk manager DC International Advisory, told Voice of America

“Both candidates have been public figures for considerable amounts of time, so there are certainly things to look at in their past records or their positions on current issues that are enough to talk about without making gender an issue,” he said.

Mr. Feingold also said gender would take a backseat in the race to Taiwan's main political issue: relations with Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and which used to govern the island.

Former teacher and current deputy legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu will represent the incumbent Nationalist Party. Ms. Hung supports a close relationship with China and was in favor of economic agreements based on the premise that Taiwan belonged to China, negotiated by current president Ma Ying-jeou.

Her opponent, the Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, criticized this concession as detrimental to Taiwan’s autonomy, AP reported.

Though China’s influence in Taiwan may be divisive, it may also be to thank for Taiwan’s seeming openness to a female president. Taiwan’s culture stems from China, and Chinese clans were traditionally headed by women over the age of 50, Joanna Lei, CEO of Taiwan’s Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank, told AP.

Ten government departments in Taiwan are led by women. A third of Taiwanese legislators are also women – about twice as many as in Japan or South Korea, where women make up 13 and 16 percent of legislators respectively, Sean King, of New York consulting firm Park Strategies, told AP.

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In spite of this, Ms. Lei said younger women lack the clout of their 50-plus counterparts. And though Taiwan is open to having a female president, it is hardly leading the region in taking such a step. Women have been elected to the highest government office in South Korea, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and India.

What may be unique about Taiwan’s situation, though, is having female candidates run on behalf of both major parties, Nationalist party spokesman Philip Yang told Voice of America.

“It's not in other countries that both opposition – major opposition – and ruling party candidates are both female, so this is probably making this campaign very interesting,” he said.

AP reported that polls reflect the Taiwanese public’s desire for autonomy from China, in alignment with Ms. Tsai’s stance. Tsai ran against President Ma in 2012 and lost by six percentage points, but is currently ahead of Hung in the polls. Taiwan will choose its next president in January.