Taiwan's KMT picks wildcard Hung for presidential race

TAIPEI: Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) officially endorsed wildcard candidate Hung Hsiu-chu Sunday to run for president next year, as the deeply divided party faces a battle to regain public support.

Known as "xiao-la-jiao" or "little hot pepper" for her straight-talking style, Hung's conservative pro-China views fly in the face of voter sentiment as fears grow over increased Beijing influence.

Concern about the island's warming ties with China was one reason behind the Beijing-friendly KMT's rout in November local elections, a barometer for the presidential vote next January.

With the party tipped for another defeat, KMT big hitters have sat on the sidelines, leaving unlikely Hung the only candidate.

She was endorsed to applause and a standing ovation at a KMT party congress in Taipei, the final rubber stamp after the standing committee backed her last month.

"As long as we stand together, we can win the election," said Hung, in a week which saw five KMT legislators who had criticised the party expelled.

She sought to allay fears over her China policy -- which has even alienated some in her own party -- taking a more moderate line.

"We will bear people's opinions in mind and give priority to Taiwan's interests, and continue fighting for the peaceful development of both sides," she said.

Hung will take on Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Beijing-sceptic main opposition the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with Taiwan's China policy at the heart of the duel.

- First female leader? -

Other candidates are also set to enter the race, but the two women are currently the major contenders, with veteran Tsai the clear favourite.

If either won it would be the first time a woman led the island.

Hung, currently deputy parliamentary speaker, saw her popularity soar after she put in her nomination bid.

But it has since dipped on concern over her China message.

Taiwan split from China in 1949 after a civil war and is self-ruling, but Beijing still sees the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification -- by force if necessary.

The KMT espouses a "one China, different interpretation" model, tacitly agreed with Beijing and known as the "1992 consensus", which avoids a declaration of independence but asserts the island's sovereignty.

Hung, however, has historically taken a pro-unification stance.

President Ma Ying-jeou reiterated the importance of the consensus at the congress Sunday.

"We must do everything we can to safeguard the 1992 consensus, which has become the most critical source of stability over the past seven years," he said.

Hung seemed prepared to toe the line, saying she would "abide by the 1992 consensus" if elected president.

Chairman Eric Chu urged unity at the congress.

"This moment is for the KMT to stand together and start again," he said.

"The KMT is in a difficult situation but it is not hopeless."

There was a minute's silence before the meeting for victims of a water park inferno last month that left seven dead, with almost 200 still in critical condition.