Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Female Presidential Hopefuls in East Asia

On April 27th this year, party chairperson Tsai Ing-wen captured the 2012 presidential nomination for Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).  This made her the first female presidential candidate in ROC history. Meanwhile in South Korea, another woman—Park Geun-hye—is expected to be nominated by the Grand National Party (GNP) for the 2012 presidential election as polls consistently have her far ahead of other GNP hopefuls.

Political life in East Asia is often characterized as male dominated, especially compared to its Western counterpart. Yet, recent elections throughout the region suggest a small but growing trend of strong female candidates across the political spectrum. In the cases of Tsai and Park, both carry the heavy burden of resurrecting the hopes of their particular parties. For Tsai, whose party lost in both the presidential and legislative elections in 2008, the main aim is  to steer the party towards the middle on the issue of Taiwan’s future status while simultaneously developing an engagement policy regarding China distinct from that of the Kuomintang (KMT).

Tsai’s stronger than expected showing in the 2010 Xinbei mayoral election, a region historically more favorable to the KMT, showed her ability to appeal to both party loyalists and the ever desired median voter. For Park, presidential politics are nothing new. As the daughter of authoritarian era leader Park Chung-hee, she narrowly lost her own bid for the GNP nomination in 2007. Her widespread appeal is seen by GNP insiders as a counterbalance to the general decline in party support under President Lee Myung-bak, further weakened by the success of the Democratic Party (DP) in by-elections held on April 27th.

Admittedly Tsai and Park are not necessarily representative of their parties or female politicians in East Asia.  In both countries as well as in Japan, female legislators remain underrepresented and relegated primarily to party list seats and not the more numerous district seats. This is likely due either to the difficulty in recruiting quality female candidates or more probable still, the hesitance of parties to run such candidates out of concern of their limited electoral appeal.  Still, while traditional views of a woman’s role within society are slow to change, we appear to see a growing willingness among a diverse set of voters in East Asia to transcend such historical and cultural constraints.

Certainly predicting any election in advance is risky business. Even if neither Tsai nor Park become the first female head of state in what we might call Confucian East Asia, the importance of major parties nominating nationally competitive female candidates should encourage future challenges to the political glass ceiling.

Tim Rich is a PhD Candidate at Indiana University, working on Taiwan and South Korea.