Profile: Tsai Ing-wen

Taiwan's first female presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen in Chiayi on 9 January, 2012
Image caption ''Little Ing'', Taiwan's first female presidential candidate, has strong support in the south

Taiwan's first female presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, wants to create a new political culture if she wins the upcoming elections.

In some ways the opposition leader, who is in a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Ma Ying-jeou, has already done so.

The 55-year-old former law professor has been credited with cleaning up the image of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in recent years.

Campaigning in the southern city of Tainan, she pledged to engage Mr Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) and other opponents in policy making, if elected.

Cruising down the streets in a jeep, she was greeted by supporters chanting her nickname, ''Little Ing''.

She has strong support in the island's south, including the cities of Kaohsiung and Chaiyi.

''We will meet the people's expectations for political tolerance, understanding and cooperation,'' she said.

China 'hot button'

Her pragmatic approach and analytical style is a marked departure from the often fiery rhetoric of her predecessor, Chen Shui-bian.

Ms Tsai joined the DPP in 2004 but rose quickly to become its chairwoman four years later, when the party suffered a heavy defeat in the presidential elections.

Mr Chen lost to Mr Ma at the polls, and was later jailed for corruption.

Despite splits and factionalism in the party, Ms Tsai was able to rally the support she needed to rejuvenate the DPP. Under her leadership, it has performed much better in local elections.

On policy matters, Ms Tsai has criticised the pro-China stance of Mr Ma, opposing the landmark free trade agreement signed between Beijing and Taipei under his rule.

Her party favours Taiwan's formal independence from China, which claims Taiwan as a province.

During his term as president, Mr Chen angered China with his declarations that Taiwan was ''an independent nation''.

Ms Tsai says she is not against negotiating with China on economic and other matters, as long as it does not affect Taiwan's sovereignty.

She has also often cast cross-straits relations as a bigger, global discussion, rather than one of bilateral relations.

This represents a more moderate position than the party's previous stance on the hot-button issue.

However, the Chinese remain suspicious of her and the DPP, and favour Mr Ma.

'More sophisticated DPP'

A law graduate of the National Taiwan University, she said recently that she believed relations with China would ''move forward, not backward'' if she were to be elected.

Ms Tsai, who is single, completed her master's degree at Cornell University Law School in 1980 and went on to earn a doctorate degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1984.

Her style and bearing sets her apart from the rest of the DPP ''old guard'', something that has worked to her advantage in attracting younger voters.

Born in a coastal village in the south of Taiwan, she moved to Taipei when she was 11. Her mixed ethnicity - Hakka father and Taiwanese mother - has been cited as one of the traits that helped her connect to supporters.

She also has a grandmother who is from one of the non-Chinese indigenous groups in Taiwan.

In the 1990s, she was a negotiator for Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization. She was then asked to serve on the National Security Council as an advisor to former President Lee Teng-hui.

During the DPP administration from 2000 to 2008, she served as minister of the China policy body, the Mainland Affairs Council, and vice premier.

China, she said in an interview with the BBC in June 2011, needs to acknowledge ''the new leadership'' in ''a more sophisticated DPP''.

''Whatever is in the past, is in the past,'' she said. ''I think China will have to look at the matter from a fresh perspective and a new perspective.''