TAIPEI - Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party formally and unanimously confirmed Hung Hsiu-chu, the pro-China deputy parliamentary speaker, as its presidential candidate at a convention on July 19 attended by 1,200 delegates.
The nomination of a candidate who supports Taiwan's eventual unification with China at some point and lacks executive experience reflects ongoing confusion at the top of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).
Few observers in Taiwan regard Hung, 67, as a credible opponent to Tsai Ing-wen, 58, the candidate being fielded by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai, the DPP party chairwoman, is a former trade negotiator with ample experience in government who wants to maintain ongoing China exchanges while upholding Taiwan's sovereignty.
KMT politicians with a more moderate stance on China ties, including Chairman Eric Chu, are reluctant to run in January's presidential poll after the party was routed in key mayoral elections in November. The trouncing of the ruling party was attributed to widespread unhappiness with President Ma Ying-jeou's China-friendly policies and his poor handling of domestic issues, including a string of food safety scandals.
On Sunday, Hung appeared to acknowledge her weak position in the upcoming campaign, which she characterized as "very challenging" in her acceptance speech.
Hung told delegates that as president, she will "push for peaceful development in cross-strait relations and help all Taiwanese benefit from peaceful ties between the two sides". Her statement seemed to be an effort to appease voters who feel Ma's China policies have benefited big businesses at the expense of ordinary people and their livelihoods.
In her speech, Hung did not repeat her earlier statement that Taiwan and China belong to the same country. Instead, she said her future dealings with Beijing will be based on the "1992 Consensus." The consensus refers to Ma's claim that while there is only one China, Taipei and Beijing are free to interpret that however each side wants. Ma's initiative has been an attempt to have two governments set aside their political differences and work together on economic exchanges.
Taiwan is a democratic, sovereign state that split from mainland China in 1949 after the communist takeover, but Beijing has always considered the island of its own and never officially ruled out force as a means to re-unification.
Nicknamed "Little Chili Pepper" for her slight build and feisty manners, Hung surprised everyone when she became the only candidate who signed up for the KMT presidential primary in May. KMT's central standing committee, the party's decision-making body, approved of her candidacy in June.
With Hung's electability in question, there has been speculation that James Soong, the China-friendly chairman of the People's First Party, might join the presidential race. The charismatic 73-year-old politician is seen by many Nationalists as a moderate alternative to Hung.
In a poll in June conducted by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, 37.1% of respondents said they would vote for Tsai, 24.3% for Soong, and 20.5% for Hung if all three run in January. The poll of 1003 people has a margin of error of 3.1%.