Honeymoon’s over for Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen as policy fights slow reform
Things are looking down for DPP’s leader as she faces growing pressure and falling approval ratings only six months into presidency
Six months after her historic ascent to Taiwan’s highest office, Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity is falling as she gets pulled into policy disputes and distracted from a promised economic overhaul.
Tsai, 60, became Taiwan’s first female president in May after a landslide election victory on a pledge to avoid the policy inertia that afflicted her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.
A stagnant economy under Ma spurred a voter backlash that saw his Kuomintang and its allies shut out of power for the first time since Chiang Kai-shek led them across the Taiwan Strait during the Chinese civil war more than six decades ago.
Now, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supports independence from China, have found themselves bogged down in squabbling.
Work has ground to a halt on an oversight bill for more cross-strait deals like those that defined Ma’s eight-year tenure. Her pledge to boost wages remains unfulfilled. An office created in June to build Southeast Asian commercial ties has not detailed plans for spending a US$132 million in budgeted funds.
“I’m not sure she’s that determined,” Adu Wu, 34, the co-founder of a technology start-up in Taipei, said last week. “Before the election, she was saying more, but now she has become quite conservative.”
Pressure is mounting on the president to show some success. Tsai’s approval rating has sunk to 26 per cent, according to a poll of more than 1,000 people released last week by cable network TVBS. That is down from a post-inaugural high of 47 per cent in June.
But Tsai’s opponent party Kuomintang appears not to have gained any advantages from her falling popularity, according to a former senior official of Taiwan’s top cross-strait affairs agency.
Chang Hsien-yao, former deputy head of the Mainland Affairs Council, said in a speech in Hong Kong on Tuesday that KMT’s popularity had not risen as the DPP’s fell.
“[It] shows the public hopes for a complete reform of the KMT in order for it to regain their support,” he said. “[Otherwise,] they would not vote for KMT even if DPP’s poll ratings drop.”
Chang also noted that KMT’s election of its new chairman would play a significant part in deciding the party’s future.
“The party would face an unprecedented crisis if KMT does not elect an enterprising chairman with strong leadership and integrative capability next year,” he said. “They would not have a second chance if another divisive crisis emerges within the party.”
DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said Tsai’s flagging popularity was partly because the public was confused about her priorities, which she had promised would be economic matters.
Tsai bore ultimate responsibility for Premier Lin Chuan’s handling of domestic issues, Lo said, describing progress as “kind of slow”.
He said: “Like it or not, she is the one who was elected by the people.”
Lo added, however, that Tsai’s move to take over some decisions had achieved some success. “Hopefully, decisions will be made in a much more efficient, effective way.”
The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation released polling data on Monday showing that 56 per cent disapprove of Tsai’s performance on the economy. Michael You, chairman of the foundation, said Tsai needed to clear away some policy distractions to avoid losing credibility.
Otherwise, “more and more people will not accept what she says”, said You, who also served as deputy chief of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council under the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian.
The government said last week that the Taiwanese economy was expected to grow 1.87 per cent next year, below the 2.6 per cent growth that economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected for South Korea, another export-dependent economy.
Challenges include declining global trade, stagnant wages, falling tourism and the possibility of electricity shortfalls as Tsai seeks to wean the island off nuclear power.
“The poll numbers vary, but in any case, the government will try its hardest to accelerate its ongoing push for various reforms as a response to society’s high expectations,” Tsai’s office said in a statement on Tuesday.
Tsai has found herself drawn into a series of public spats during the past six months, including allegations by DPP lawmakers that Kuomintang members laundered money through a state-backed bank.
Some members of the ruling party unsuccessfully urged Lin to step down after saying he mishandled the scandal. The DPP has also launched reviews of KMT assets going back 70 years and investigations into whether Ma abused his power while in office.
The president has begun weekly meetings to coordinate the administration’s response to policy matters, such as a fight over efforts to resolve the problem of unequal national holidays between the public and private sectors, which could see a a five-day working week implemented with one mandatory day off and a “flexible rest day”. Both major parties have done an about-face over the matter of national holidays, with the DPP targeted by labour protests outside the island’s famously raucous Legislative Yuan.
“The legislature is like a circus,” KMT lawmaker Jason Hsu said last week in Taipei. “We almost have to learn kung fu to protect ourselves.”
Some of Tsai’s thorniest challenges have come from her own party, where various factions are anxious to use their robust majority to push through pet causes. Some ruling party lawmakers want a pardon for Chen, Tsai’s former boss, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for corruption before being granted medical parole in 2015.
Others have sought to revive Taiwan’s campaign for United Nations membership, which the Chinese government would view as a move toward independence.
Tsai’s decision earlier this month to appoint two long-time independence advocates as senior advisers, including one of Lin’s most vocal critics, was seen as a gesture toward the separatist camp.
Such moves risk bringing Tsai closer to a showdown with China’s President Xi Jinping, who has warned Taiwan against any effort to formalise its political split from the mainland.
While Tsai has vowed to maintain ties, Communist Party leaders have been angered by her refusal to say both sides belong to “one-China”, an idea that underpinned improved relations under Ma.
The idea, agreed between the two sides in 1992, stipulates there is only one China, but allowed each to have its own interpretation of what that means.
Chen came to Tsai’s defence last Thursday, when Sanlih E-Television released a recording of the former president speaking to an unnamed friend, complaining about the Tsai’s political struggles. He said she was facing difficulties at a level comparable to his own chaotic second term.
“She is only just starting,” Chen said. “She has only been there for six months and we see disharmony.” He called for both political camps to work together. “We need to be united and walk side by side, so we can build our country. Right now, society is chaotic. The country can’t progress.”
Additional reporting by Eva Li