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Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president, has enjoyed a boost in public opinion polls which has been attributed to her strong rebuke of Beijing’s call for unification talks based on “one China, two systems”. Photo: Bloomberg

Poll boost for Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen after tough stand against Beijing

  • Sharp rise in public support boosts Tsai’s chances of winning DPP nomination for 2020 presidential elections

Public support for Taiwan’s embattled President Tsai Ing-wen has risen sharply after her tough rejection of Beijing’s call for unification talks, boosting her chances of winning her party’s nomination for the 2020 elections.

Tsai, whose popularity had been flagging at a low of 24 per cent due to widespread disapproval of her performance, has seen her approval rating climb by 10 percentage points to 34.5 per cent in the latest opinion poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation.

Michael You Ying-lung, foundation chairman and a hardline supporter of independence for the self-ruled island, said the turnaround in Tsai’s popularity showed there was no market in Taiwan for “one country, two systems”, the model for unification proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of January.

“The president’s popularity stayed at 24.3 per cent last month, but jumped sharply to 34.5 per cent – the highest in six months – because of her rebuke of Xi’s speech and her pledge to safeguard Taiwan and the public well-being,” You said on Monday, releasing the poll results.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen open to cross-strait talks, but has some demands for Beijing first

You, a member of the hardline faction in Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, has strongly opposed Tsai’s intention to run for a second term but said the rise in her popularity showed a majority of the public were convinced by her response to Xi’s January 2 speech, delivered on the 40th anniversary of the cross-strait ceasefire.

Xi’s proposal for talks, based on the one-China principle adopted by Hong Kong and Macau, was backed by a warning that any declaration of independence would lead to an attack from the mainland.

Tsai wasted no time in rejecting the call, saying Taiwan did not want one country, two systems and that Xi’s proposal for unification talks under the one-China principle was intended to destroy the island.

Another survey, also released on Monday by the unaligned Taiwanese monthly publication Global Magazine, found Tsai’s popularity had risen in just a month to 24.8 per cent, from 13.3 per cent, which it attributed mainly to the rebuke.

“Xi’s speech gave the president a floating board, allowing her to save herself from her predicament,” said Wang Kao-cheng, dean of the college of international relations at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Tsai has been under intense pressure from her party’s hardline faction since the DPP’s crushing defeat in November’s local elections, which was blamed on her government’s poor performance.

The mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) swept to a landslide victory, taking control of 15 of the 22 cities and counties, including the pro-independence stronghold of Kaohsiung in the south.

At the time, analysts and local news media predicted Tsai would have an uphill battle to secure the DPP nomination for her re-election bid.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen urged to stand aside by hardline pro-independence faction

Tsai resigned as party chairwoman immediately after the local elections and has faced calls from DPP hardliners to give up her place on the 2020 presidential ticket in favour of former premier William Lai, who is from the hardline camp.

Wang said it seemed Tsai was making good use of developments, from her stern rejection of Xi’s call to criticism by her government, including from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, of Beijing’s approaches.

“Her rebuke has raised her stake in winning a party’s ticket for next year’s polls, but if Tsai wants to win a second term, she must secure support from the United States, while riding on the anti-China sentiment to consolidate her political base,” Wang said.

Washington has shown steady support for Tsai since the November elections, in what local news media has described as a reluctance to see the island lean towards Beijing.

Beijing and Washington look on as Taiwan’s DPP picks new chairman

Sun Da-chien, a former KMT legislator and now a finance law professor at CTBC Business School in Tainan, said that although Tsai’s popularity had risen, this did not mean the public had found her performance, or that of her government’s handling of domestic issues, improving.

“She needs to work hard to win public support of her domestic performance if she wants to win a second term,” Sun said.

According to Monday’s opinion poll from the foundation, 47.5 per cent of respondents did not approve of Tsai’s handling of the island’s affairs and personnel, as well as policy matters; while 34.5 per cent gave her their approval.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tsai’s tough stance towards Beijing boosts popularity