Women in Politics: The Patterns in AsiaTsai Ing-wen and Hung Hsiu-chu are likely the first cases in Asia of viable presidential or prime ministerial candidates who cannot rely on political familial ties
With Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) as the likely Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate, Taiwan is poised to have its first female president following the 2016 election. At a time when Americans consider the possibility of their first female president in Hilary Rodham Clinton, the Taiwanese case of two female candidates appears unusual even in Western democracies. However, female presidents and prime ministers are not unusual in Asia, a trend that is often ignored in the west.
One only need to look at the last 15 years to find examples at the national level, with women holding the office of president or prime minister in Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and most recently in South Korea. As I addressed in a paper with Elizabeth Gribbins earlier last year, the pattern of female candidates in Asia challenges several assumptions. Whereas Muslim majority countries in the Middle East see the lowest rate of female (elected or appointed) officials, Muslim majority countries in Asia have elected several women as president or prime minister, starting with Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in 1988, followed by Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Furthermore, where women globally have been more successful in parliamentary over presidential systems, no such pattern is seen in Asia.
In one aspect, Taiwan is a clear outlier among Asian democracies. In all past cases where an Asian country popularly elected a female president or prime minister, the female candidate in question had strong familial ties either to a former elected leader or to one of the major leaders of the democratization movement. The pattern is stark: countries as diverse as India (Indira Gandhi), Sri Lanka (Srimavo Bandaranaike), the Philippines (Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Thailand (Yingluck Shinawatra) and South Korea (Park Geun-hye) have all elected women at the national stage, but in every case the woman was the daughter, wife, widow, or sister of a former leader. To put in context, only three similar cases are seen anywhere else in the post-World War II era: Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina), Janet Jagan (Guyana) and Mireya Moscoso (Panama).
Tsai and Hung thus, to the best of my knowledge, provide the first cases in Asia of viable presidential or prime ministerial candidates without such familial ties. Unlike the other cases, they can neither rely on the legacy of their male relative to draw electoral support nor do they have to deflect criticism regarding the policies of their predecessor. A cursory view further suggests greater opportunities for female candidates in Taiwan compared to their regional counterparts. In 2012, 33.6% of seats in the Legislative Yuan were awarded to female candidates, the highest since democratization, dwarfing their neighbors South Korea (16.3%) and Japan (9.5%) and above the average in Asia of only 19% of seats in lower houses or countries with a unicameral legislature.
While far from gender parity, this suggests a growing political space for female candidates across the political spectrum in Taiwan.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems (e.g. Germany, New Zealand). His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.