Taiwan politics

Tsai Ing-wen

Why is the popularity of Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen plummeting?

Six months into her presidency, DPP leader is sharing same fate as her KMT predecessor Ma Ying-jeou

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 6:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 6:09am

Beset by protests by disgruntled islanders and increased pressure from Beijing, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is battling falling popularity after six months in office.

Like her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), Tsai’s popularity has plummeted early in her presidency due to economic problems and public disappointment with the government’s performance.

Analysts said that if Tsai was to avoid the same fate as Ma, who stepped down in May with a disapproval rating more than double his approval rating, she must find ways to overcome a litany of challenges – from a cross-strait stalemate to a lacklustre economy and protests over government policy flip-flops.

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And, more importantly, they said, she must be able to deal with new challenges brought about by Donald Trump’s inauguration as the next US president in January, with changes to America’s global engagement and economic policies bound to have an impact on Taiwan.

Tsai refused to accept poll results showing that satisfaction with her policies had fallen below 50 per cent after just 100 days in office, saying it was unreasonable to judge her performance in such a short time, but her public approval ratings have only deteriorated since then.

Surveys by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, a private and politically neutral pollster, showed that Tsai’s disapproval rating (45 per cent) surpassed her approval rating (42.8 per cent) in August and that the gap widened in September (48.3 per cent vs 38.4 per cent) and October (48.4 per cent vs 34.9 per cent).

What is alarming for the government is that a November 11 survey by the pro-DPP Taiwan Thinktank returned similar results, with 42.8 per cent disapproving of Tsai and 40.6 per cent approving.

Although young people remained her biggest support group, with 51.6 per cent finding Tsai’s performance satisfactory, their support has also declined since she was inaugurated on May 20.

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When she was sworn in, 76 per cent of those aged between 20 and 24 said they supported her, and 64 per cent of those aged between 25 and 34. But her support among the younger group has since fallen to 50 per cent, according to Taiwan Thinktank. And among 25 to 34 year olds, more now disapprove of her (44 per cent) than approve (40 per cent).

“This means more and more young people are dissatisfied with the performance of President Tsai,” Taiwan Thinktank chairman You Ying-lung said. “This actually is a warning signal to the Tsai government.”

When campaigning for January’s presidential and parliamentary elections, Tsai and her party capitalised on various civic and social movements organised by young people, most notably the Sunflower student movement that occupied the parliament in March and April 2014 to protest against a cross-strait trade deal signed by the Ma government. Young people’s denunciation of the Ma government and the KMT and their staunch support for Tsai were seen as key reasons for the landslide victories recorded by Tsai and the DPP.

“But they are the same group of people spelling disaster for Tsai due to what they perceive as policy flip-flops of the Tsai government, especially her indecision over labour holidays,” said Professor Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.

Tsai vowed to improve labour benefits by giving employees two mandatory days off per week, plus seven statutory holidays, but in amending the labour bill, the DPP-dominated legislature not only tried to axe the seven statutory holidays, but also wanted to allow just one fixed day off, giving employers the option of asking employees to work on the other “rest day”, for which they would be paid overtime. Labour groups and student protesters have accused Tsai of breach of promise and shifting the government’s allegiance from workers to businesses.

Protests by young people and civic groups fighting for labour rights, health care and other causes – encouraged by Tsai and the DPP before they won office – are now commonplace. Some have turned violent, with protesters storming government offices and battling police.

“If the Tsai government is able to lift the sagging economy and improve the general public’s livelihoods, this would help ease the general disgruntlement by the public and improve her popularity,” said Professor Chen Chun-pin, from the Graduate Institute of Public Policy at National Chiayi University in Taiwan. “But her eagerness to push for so-called transitional justice serves only to create the crisis of class struggles and resentment towards the government.”

Since taking office, the Tsai government has stressed the need to restore political, social and economic rights to those it said were deprived of them by the previous, authoritarian KMT regime, but its formation of an agency to demand the KMT return “ill-gotten assets” has been criticised as a political witch-hunt by some Taiwanese media outlets and commentators.

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Professor Shih Cheng-feng, a political scientist at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, said Tsai had tried to do a lot of things at the same time. “She has opened too many battlegrounds,” Shih said, adding that holding frequent meetings to discuss policies did not necessarily mean the government could come up with the right ones.

In a recent interview with Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, who used to be Tsai’s mentor, criticised her for being indecisive in pushing for judicial and pension reforms and lacking the courage to take on Beijing, saying he expected Tsai’s approval rating to continue to drop.

He said Tsai should clarify her cross-strait policy and push for it step by step, whether the goal was to pursue Taiwanese independence or something else. “This is not in line with the Taiwanese people’s expectations and it’s the reason why her approval ratings have been falling,” he said.

Analysts said Tsai’s reluctance to accept the “one-China” principle in her dealings with the mainland had won her applause from the pro-independence camp in Taiwan but had irritated Beijing, which had punished the island by suspending cross-strait exchanges. The one-China principle, also known as the 1992 consensus, was an oral agreement reached at talks in Hong Kong in 1992 between intermediaries from either side of the strait that there is only one China but that each side has its own interpretation of what one China is.

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Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a part of the mainland and subject to eventual reunification, has warned Taiwan that it will react with military force if the island moves to declare independence.

Professor Edward Chen I-hsin, from the Graduate Institute of the Americas at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said Trump’s election could complicate Tsai’s economic agenda.

“With Trump elected president, Tsai, who bet on joining the [US President Barack] Obama-led Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in order to cut economic reliance on the mainland, may face the consequence of a possible dropping of the pact by Trump, who declared his intention to abort it during his presidential campaign,” Edward Chen said.

Sensing the peril, Tsai asked DPP members at a meeting on November 16 to constantly heed public voices and refrain from entertaining the thought that the DPP would be able to firmly rule the island for four years. “Do not presume that we can smoothly rule for four years because the people have given us votes,” a DPP official quoted Tsai as telling the meeting.

On Saturday, responding to a report in the Taiwanese edition of Apple Daily that a new poll showed Tsai’s disapproval rating had risen to 58 per cent, compared with 34 per cent approval, presidential spokesman Alex Huang said the Tsai government would speed up reforms in order to meet public expectations.