By being elected the first female president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen has already broken remarkable new ground. The even greater challenge that lies ahead of her now will be to prove, on almost a daily basis, that her gender is of no consequence to running a republic where many of the people in positions of power are still older, conservative and male.
Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party won nearly 6.9 million votes in last week’s general election, securing 56 percent of the popular vote and a large majority over the incumbent Kuomintang party, which polled a shade over 31 percent of the votes cast.
In the previous election, in January 2012, the DPP had taken 45 percent of the vote.
In an interview with The Telegraph shortly before polling day, Ms Tsai expressed her admiration for Margaret Thatcher’s “versatility and strength”, which she witnessed close-up as a student of law at the London School of Economics in 1984 – a year in which Mrs Thatcher faced down striking coal miners and was fortunate to escape unscathed when an IRA bomb devastated the Grand Hotel in Brighton, killing five people and injuring 31.
It is significant that the two other people that 59-year-old Mrs Tsai credits as being her political role models are also female.
Of Charlene Barshefsky, Washington’s top trade negotiator between 1997 and 2001, Ms Tsai told me: “I learned a lot from her in the 1990s. Her professionalism, the way she deals with difficult issues have enlightened me a lot.”
The second person to have helped shape her approach to a job held by only one other woman in the politics of Far East Asia – Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea – is Chen chu, the mayor of the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung.
“She was brave and a revolutionary”, Ms Tsai says. “She runs Taiwan’s second-largest city so well that she earns a lot of respect from a lot of people in Taiwan. I have also learned a lot from her”.
Still, running a nation that faces as many challenges as Taiwan faces today – ranging from an anaemic economy, falling real wages and fewer jobs at home to unrelenting pressure from China and broader geo-political concerns across East Asia – then it is clear that her task is a formidable one.
In her favour is the large majority she will lead when she takes office on May 20, while the vast majority of her supporters are also young and, barring disaster, can be expected to stick with her through the difficult times that will inevitably impact her presidency at some point. They consider her to be closer to their lives and to have more of the same concerns they face.
It was striking how virtually all the DPP supportser pictured celebrating in the hours after Ms Tsai’s victory was announced appeared to 20- and 30-something professionals – and of both genders.
In our most recent communication, Ms Tsai dismissed the idea that her sex should play a part in her ability to run the nation and emphasised the importance that young voters would play in the upcoming election.
“Gender used to be a barrier for women to overcome if they wanted to be in politics, but today in Taiwan the situation is somewhat different”, she said. “I think there is even a preference for a woman candidate and in local elections we have seen that younger, better-educated female candidates are overwhelmingly preferred by the voters.
“Of course, there are some voters who are rather traditional and have some reservations about electing a woman leader”, she added. “But the younger generation are excited to have a woman leader for the country. They think it is somewhat trendy”.
She may be unmarried – and resolutely declines to discuss her private life – but Ms Tsai is will enjoy her honeymoon period with the electorate. She can use her “trendiness” with the young to build her support base and tackle many of the problems that are of concern to that demographic and, given time, she may win over some of the conservatives who previously looked down their noses at women in positions of power.
Even more importantly, she can become the role model to future generations of Taiwanese women who decide they want to be engines of change in the country, whether that be in the halls of political power or boardrooms.
Taiwan was one of the Far East’s original economic “tigers”; today, it has the opportunity to forge a new reputation as one of the region’s leaders in women’s equality.