Taipei, Taiwan - On January 16, citizens of Taiwan will vote for their next president.

The most recent polls published in the local newspaper Apple Daily and conducted by Shi Hsin University's polling centres show the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, holding a considerable lead, suggesting that she could become Taiwan's first female president. But she still faces significant opposition.

The ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), which favours friendly ties with China, trails behind the DPP even though their candidate, Eric Chu, is the popular mayor of the country's most populated municipality, New Taipei City.

The third candidate on the election ticket is the People's First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong, a political heavyweight who has campaigned for the presidency twice before. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2000 and 2012 and for vice president in 2004. In 2012, Soong only garnered only 2.76 percent of the votes.

In addition to the election of a president, Taiwanese voters will cast secondary and tertiary ballots to elect regional politicians and the leading party. Elected politicians will pass bills in the legislature.

Meanwhile, the party-list ballot will determine how many legislator-at-large seats each political party will have. To be eligible for party representation in the legislature, a party must receive a minimum of 5 percent of the votes. A mirrored percentage of the legislator-at-large list will make it into the new legislature based on vote percentages.

Political heavyweight James Soon, the PFP's  candidate, has contested two presidential elections but garnered only 2.8 per cent of the vote in 2012 [Wally Santana/AP]

Tsai Ing-wen's platform

The island nation of 23 million people lies north of the South China Sea.

Local television news station TVBS estimates a voting rate of 75 percent, which would mean a total vote count of 13.78 million ballots. The channel's polls show Tsai with a 53 percent support rating, translating to roughly seven million votes.

This is still lower than the 7.66 million votes that sent Ma Ying-jeou to the presidential office in 2008.

As the Ma administration wraps up its second and final term, media reports indicate that Ma's support rating had fallen to 9 percent over the past eight years. However, after the historic meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, a poll commissioned by Taiwan Thinktank and done by Trend Survey & Research showed Ma's approval rating sitting at 19.9 percent. 

"The Kuomintang [Nationalist Party] has been in office for seven years and under this government, not only has Taiwan not improved, it has regressed," Tsai said on her campaign website. "The economy has lost motion and society lies within insecurity. People are worried about food safety, long-term elderly care, pension reform and fiscal discipline.

Watch: Taiwan Election 

"But the government has not addressed any of these issues," she added.

Under her public policy platform, Tsai wants to see 200,000 rental-only units of affordable public housing built within the next eight years.

With recurring food scandals plaguing Taiwan, Tsai said that the government must regulate food safety from farm to table. The origins of food, list of additives and other relevant information must be provided to consumers.

The ageing population of Taiwan needs to be taken care of through preventative care, Tsai added on her campaign website, proposing community wellness centres equipped with elderly day care, meal services and transportation.

There is also high demand for public child daycare centres, and Tsai has suggested that meeting this demand will help to create jobs.

Tsai Ing-wen, right, the DPP's presidential candidate, narrowly lost the last presidential election despite a 45 percent poll rating [Olivia Harris/REUTERS]

The making of a politician

Tsai, who studied at Cornell University in the United States and the London School of Economics, previously taught law in Taiwan.

She did not begin her formal political career until May 20, 2000, when she was appointed chairwoman of the Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council.

Tsai vaulted into the legislature in 2004 after being listed on the DPP's legislator-at-large list. Moving through the ranks, she was also the cabinet's vice premier under President Chen Shui-bian and became the DPP's first female chairwoman.

Although the DPP has long presented its pro-separatist sentiment as crucial to the party's identity, Tsai has avoided taking too hard a line on this during the campaign.

Instead, she has reiterated her commitment to maintaining the status quo in Tawain-China relations, leading to criticism from the KMT, which has accused her of being vague

  WATCH: Taiwan-China relations

A new political generation

Young voters and the influence of social media in Taiwan has seen the creation of many smaller parties. On this year's party ballot, there are a record 18 political parties duelling for representation in the legislature.

The commitment to political activity among Taiwan's younger generation was seen in 2014, during the 23-day social movement that arose in response to the KMT's trade pacts with China that became known as the Sunflower Movement.

Many Taiwanese now believe that the country should move beyond the ancient DPP-KMT rivalry and enter an era of non-partisan ideologies. 

"The bipartisan system presents the question of being independent from China or reuniting with China," said Jiho Chang, a participant in the Sunflower Movement, who says that most citizens under the age of 35 identify as Taiwanese. "But young people have other concerns, other issues that they wish could be addressed like gender issues, environmental issues."

Ko Wen-je, Taipei city mayor, a former doctor praised for his lack of political pedigree, is one independent candidate who has been voted into office. Ko's penchant for brashly speaking his mind, regardless of political correctness, has appealed to voters tired of polished politicians with party agendas.

Last November's 9-in-1 elections devastated the KMT, which lost ground in former strongholds. In 22 municipalities, the KMT held on to six seats, while the DPP swept won 13 seats.

Eric Chu, the ruling KMT's presidential candidate, wants to forge a win-win situation with China that allows mutual respect and peaceful negotiations [Wally Santana/AP]

Out with the old

Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration and surging voter consensus to move beyond bipartisan relations has meant big losses for the KMT. 

The KMT supports the "1992 consensus", an understanding between Taiwan and China reached in 1992 that ensures peaceful and steady development. According  to the agreement, each side could interpret the term "One China" in its own way.

In his election promises posted on his campaign website, Chu says that he believes Taiwan needs to forge a win-win situation with China that allows mutual respect and peaceful negotiations.

The website adds that he wants to speed up negotiations on trade pacts with China, which he says will increase Taiwan's global competitiveness and its chances of joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Chu, who has a doctorate in accounting from New York University, is seen by many KMT backers as the face of the party's new era. Similar to Tsai, Chu returned to Taiwan to take up a professorship before serving in the cabinet and then as a magistrate and mayor.

In his platform, Chu proposes raising the minimum wage to stimulate the economy. During his televised policy presentation on December 23, Chu said he wanted to promote an open market to attract domestic and foreign investments by lowering taxes for start-ups. 

In 2012, Tsai lost the presidential election to Ma by 797,561 votes despite a 45.63 percent support rate. 

With four additional years of grassroot campaigning under her belt, Tsai could well become Taiwan's first female president.

Source: Al Jazeera