Sure, we have or have had women running South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and (in Sonia Gandhi) calling all the shots in India, but all owed their positions at least in part to being sisters, widows or daughters of previous rulers.
Tsai is a single woman who worked her own way up, through academia and into government and politics. In the process she has symbolically shattered a glass ceiling for women in Taiwan -- and for women in Asia.
But she is not the only reason Taiwan’s election matters.
Female candidates won 43 out of 113 seats in Taiwan’s parliament at the weekend, bringing up to 10th place in a league table of female representation in “free democracies” compiled by Academica Sinica political expert Nathan Batto in Taipei.
Men still dominate the top reaches of the two main parties in Taiwan, but this is nevertheless a significant achievement, and it will be interesting to see how many women Tsai appoints to her cabinet.
The elections were also a milestone for aboriginal representation, with legislators from Taiwan’s original inhabitants taking up eight seats in the parliament: With 7 percent of seats for a group that makes up 1.5 percent of the population, Taiwan has chosen to over-represent its aboriginal community.
“This effort to give voice to women and minorities speaks to the pride that Taiwanese have in their diverse and pluralistic society,” Batto said.
It does not end there. There was also an extremely unlikely electoral victory for a death metal singer with long hair and tattoos but no previous political experience.
Freddie Lim, leader singer of band Chthonic, beat an experienced and powerful ruling party veteran in a Taipei constituency. His rival Lin Yu-fang had told voters not to trust Lim because he had “hair longer than a woman’s and was mentally abnormal.” The voters did not listen.
You can read more about Lim on my previous blog post below, and his hope that victory would inspire young people throughout East Asia that a new form of politics is possible.
Lim’s New Power Party, which was born out of the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, won five seats in the legislature, and has helped to inject a new sense of optimism into Taiwanese politics, especially among the young.
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute who also writes for a think-tank founded by Tsai, said the elections reflected a generational shift in Taiwan, but also a sign of voters’ “maturity, open-mindedness and embrace of diversity.”
Taiwan is progressive in other ways too, hosting Asia’s largest LGBT festival. With public opinion already onside, there is a decent chance that after this election it could become the first country to legalize same-sex marriage.
The island of Taiwan only achieved a peaceful transition from martial law and dictatorship to democracy roughly two decades ago, with 1990 student protests known as the Wild Lilly movement a crucial step in that journey.
Those Taiwanese student protests took place just one year after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations were violently crushed in China. Twenty-five years later, as China moves in a more repressive direction, harassing and arresting not only dissidents, lawyers and journalists but also feminists and LGBT-rights activists, the island at its side is moving ever more confidently on the opposite path.
In her victory speech, Tsai made much of the need for new kind of politics, where democracy is not just about one election but an entire way of life, where officials learn to be humble and the government listens to the people.
At her rallies, her supporters said democracy was now a fundamental part of Taiwan’s national identity. For this election, activists and dissidents from Hong Kong and Vietnam were among those who came to Taiwan to learn and to be inspired.