By Jay Chen
CNA staff writer
After two failed attempts, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) sealed her first electoral victory Saturday, a moment for which she has been preparing since her last defeat four years ago.
With the win, the chief of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is set to become the first female head of state in a Chinese society and only one of a handful of women to lead a country in Asia's modern history.
Born in the southern county of Pingtung in 1956, the youngest of 11 children of a shrewd businessman was raised in a relatively comfortable environment, getting a master's degree from Cornell University in 1980 and a doctoral degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science four years later.
Prior to that, she studied law at the prestigious National Taiwan University, reportedly because her father Tsai Chieh-sheng (蔡潔生) wanted his extended family to have its own lawyer.
Tsai Chieh-sheng, who died in 2006, made his fortune in Taipei by servicing imported cars for Americans and later by buying and selling property and running a hotel and a construction company.
Until she was appointed chief of the Cabinet's Mainland Affairs Council in 2000, when the DPP came to power for the first time, Tsai had been little known outside the government and two universities in Taipei where she taught law and international trade.
In the government, she mainly played the role of a legal counsel, notably during Taiwan's protracted negotiation process that began in the early 1990's for access to the World Trade Organization. Taiwan did not become a member until 2002.
Tsai attributed her unflappable appearance -- at least in public -- to those years on Taiwan's negotiating team. She made a habit of keeping a straight face in order not to reveal any emotions in a conference room, she said. The habit simply stuck.
When speaking in public, Tsai often comes across as someone who is cold and aloof. While that remains the case, her experience in running for public office, by her own account, has drawn her ever closer to the people, especially after January 2012, when she lost in her first presidential bid. She won 45.63 percent of the vote, compared with incumbent Ma Ying-jeou's （馬英九）51.60 percent.
To take responsibility for the defeat, Tsai resigned as DPP chief after taking over the post in 2008, when the Kuomintang won back power following eight years under DPP President Chen Shui-bian（陳水扁）that was fraught with controversy and tension across the Taiwan Strait.
Turn around a demoralized party
She stepped down even though she had begun to turn around a party that was demoralized and in financial difficulty after its defeat in both the legislative and presidential elections of 2008.
Not in public office and not even holding a party job (although she was re-elected as party chief in May 2014), Tsai set her sights on 2016 and began preparations for her second campaign in earnest by visiting as many people and places around Taiwan as she could and drafting plans for Taiwan's future.
"It's an election that I mustn't lose," Tsai said in her book, titled "The Ing Faction: The Final Mile to Lighting Up Taiwan."
She advocates "comprehensive communication," faulting the Ma administration for "engaging in one-way propaganda instead of two-way communication."
Ever since she emerged as the DPP presidential candidate for the first time, Tsai has often been criticized for giving scant details about her policies. Critics therefore compare her to a vegetable literally named "hollow heart," as it has a hollow stem.
Her current and former colleagues say, however, that Tsai pays more attention to the details of her policies than most politicians.
"Many politicians can't stay in their seats once the discussion turns to policy matters," said Lin Chuan（林全）, a former finance minister who is now chief executive of the New Frontier Foundation, a DPP think tank established in 2011 during Tsai's term as party chairwoman.
Attentive to policy details
"She, on the other hand, can patiently sit through one policy meeting after another and listen very attentively, raising questions now and then," Lin said in an authorized biography of Tsai written by Chang Ching-wen (張瀞文).
Tsai wants to debunk the widespread belief that politicians will say anything to win votes, said Chang, author of the biography titled "Tsai Ing-wen: From the Negotiating Table to the Presidential Office."
"The reason why she is so careful about what she says is because she wants to deliver on what she promises," Chang writes in the book.
Tsai's election comes at a time when Taiwan's economic growth has sputtered and when people are generally frustrated over issues such as stagnant salaries, high housing costs and political malaise.
Tsai appears to know what challenges lie ahead and especially what it will take for her to overcome those challenges.
For years, Taiwan has been gripped by partisan fighting, with the two major parties rarely communicating with each other, much less cooperating on any major policy issues. As a result, an important trade agreement with China and a free economic zone program have failed to take off, even though the Ma administration has placed them at the top of its agenda.
"Taiwan is highly resilient," said Tsai. What it wants is a government that has the ability to lead and coordinate."
"What we need most urgently is common ground," she said. But how? She talked of a mechanism through which people with different viewpoints can resolve their confrontation and conflict, Chang writes in her book.
"In a modern society, the best mechanism for such consultations is a democratic mechanism," said Chang.
Learn from Ma's drawbacks
That explains why Tsai has often criticized the Ma administration for allegedly undemocratic conduct in its handling of the cross-strait trade agreement and other controversial issues, and why she often speaks of the importance of respecting the views of the people.
By winning the election Saturday, Tsai has had a sweet revenge, as the KMT's Eric Chu (朱立倫), her main opponent, beat her in the New Taipei mayoral election in 2010. Their competition are seen by many as one between the two major parties' brightest stars.
Since their last face-off, the DPP has grown ever stronger, mainly as a result of Tsai's leadership, scoring a resounding victory first in the 2014 local elections and then in the all-important elections of the next president and Legislature.
Now Tsai will have to put to use all the skills and knowledge she has gained as a negotiator and a politician and prove herself as a strong leader able to pull the nation together in the face of tough challenges ahead.
(Click here for the full coverage of the elections.)