TAIPEI - Taiwan's embattled ruling party was struggling to find a high-profile presidential candidate for key 2016 elections after its chief vowed Saturday to stand by his pledge not to run.
Kuomintang (KMT) leader Eric Chu was the last heavyweight to bow out of the race, leaving the party without a figurehead to stand against opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen.
Recent polls have given Tsai, chairwoman of the Beijing-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a strong lead for the 2016 contest with the KMT, which has seen its popularity slump amid public concern over China's growing influence.
Chu, the popular New Taipei City mayor, succeeded President Ma Ying-jeou as chairman in January after the party suffered its worst-ever showings in November's local polls, seen as a barometer for 2016 presidential vote.
"'I will not run for president in 2016' was the pledge I made in June when I was running for reelection as New Taipei city mayor and when I was running for Kuomintang chairman in December," Chu told reporters.
"I have to be honest and credible," Chu said, adding that his most important goal is to unite the party so it can get "back on its feet." Chu's comments came after two top party members - Vice President Wu Den-yih and parliamentary speaker Wang Jin-pyng - both indicated that they would not run for president.
Ma, who has overseen a rapid improvement in ties with China since he became president in 2008, must step down in May 2016 after serving the maximum two terms.
But public sentiment has turned against his Beijing-friendly approach, as voters say trade deals with China have been agreed in secret and have not benefited ordinary Taiwanese.
A proposed trade pact with Beijing sparked mass student-led protests and a three-week occupation of Taiwan's parliament last year.
Taiwan has ruled itself since splitting from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war, but China still sees it as part of its territory and is pushing for reunification.
Chu dismissed criticism that he was not running because he feared defeat, and said he would step down as KMT chairman next year regardless of the election outcome.