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Taiwan's KMT presidential hopeful names rights lawyer as running mate

[TAIPEI] Taiwan's presidential hopeful for the embattled ruling Kuomintang (KMT) chose a popular labour rights lawyer as his running mate Wednesday as the party seeks to prevent a rout in January's vote.

The Beijing-friendly KMT is trailing Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party in the polls - Tsai would become Taiwan's first female president if elected.

KMT candidate Eric Chu announced Wang Ju-hsuan as his running mate, a laywer and former labour minister who has won a reputation for her work with women and underprivileged groups.

At a time when the KMT is being heavily criticised by opponents for growing too close to Beijing, Wang is an independent who is not known for strong views on cross-Strait relations.

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"While serving as the minister... her performance has been hailed by workers groups," Chu told reporters.

Wang served as labour affairs minister from 2008 to 2012.

She then left politics to focus on legal work, but said she had returned to further the rights of vulnerable groups.

"I decided to come back, because... if we hope to change the destiny of underprivileged people, it can only be done through politics... Only through politics, can distribution of the country's resources be changed," she said Wednesday.

The KMT is struggling to regain public support after its worst-ever local election defeat last year, with its China-friendly policy under current president Ma Ying-jeou a major factor.

The party has been criticised for failing to deliver prosperity to ordinary people, despite closer ties and trade deals with China.

Salaries have remained frozen, while the cost of living rises.

There are also fears that Beijing's influence on the island is growing, with opponents riled by Ma's recent high-profile meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification by force if necessary, even though the island has ruled itself for more than six decades since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

The Beijing-sceptic DPP's Tsai named her running mate on Monday. Chen Chien-jen, health minister from 2003 to 2005, was credited with coordinating the response that enabled Taiwan to combat the SARS epidemic.

Nearly 700 people were infected in Taiwan during the outbreak. The viral disease, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms, forced the government to shut schools and public areas and claimed 84 lives on the island.