OPINION: Tsai Faces a Sea of Troubles but Can Still Take Arms Against Them

OPINION: Tsai Faces a Sea of Troubles but Can Still Take Arms Against Them
Photo Credit: 中央社

What you need to know

As Taiwan heads into its Chinese New Year break, its leader has much to ponder.

By Mark Weatherall and Huang Kai-ping

For President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the shock win of the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) in the mayoral election for Kaohsiung, a traditional stronghold of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), symbolized a disastrous night for the party and the president personally. The surprising success of Han Kuo-yu and other KMT candidates around the country can be partly attributed to the effective campaign tactics of KMT candidates, including a relentless focus on issues such as the economy and air pollution that impact ordinary people’s everyday lives. More fundamentally, they were an expression of widespread popular dissolution with the performance of Tsai’s government.

In fact, many of the domestic troubles faced by Tsai are little different from those faced by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. The structural issues facing the economy, including low wages, rising inequality, high property prices, and uneven development have been decades in the making. Policy mishaps in the face of public backlashes has been a constant feature of both the Ma and Tsai administrations. Ma’s popularity never recovered from rises in fuel and electricity prices. Tsai’s popularity plummeted only after 100 days in the position due to labor policy reform.

While policies had been justified for improving the overall welfare, lack of comprehensive and thoughtful policymaking has been a constant criticism faced by both governments. As a result, policy proposals have emerged only to be abandoned a few days later in the face of criticism in the media and complaints from the public. The most recent example included reports that the government was considering a rebate for low-income earners after tax revenues exceeded government predictions, only to be denied by the government a few days later.

After the election defeat, Tsai became even more cautious about pushing unpopular policies, even reversing previously announced policies such as requiring new scooters to ABS or CBS braking systems for fear of adding to the financial burdens of ordinary people, instead offering government subsidies as an incentive for consumers to fit ABS or CBS. The replacement of Premier William Lai (賴清德) with Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) on Jan. 14 in response to the election defeat may do little to improve the situation given that two-thirds of Lai’s cabinet ministers have remained in position and the institutional constraints on effective policy making might continue to bedevil the Tsai administration.

Photo Credit: 中央社
Su Tseng-chang‘s appointment as Premier may do little to inspire improved policymaking given the continuity of President Tsai's cabinet.

Besides policy indecisiveness, Tsai has more daunting challenges. As a DPP president, Tsai’s base expects her to deliver on reforms to unravel the legacy of the KMT party-state, including reform of the military civil servant pension system and the judicial system, as well as the thorny issue of transitional justice. However, there has been a significant backlash from the reform losers, which Tsai acknowledged when she resigned as party chair following the election defeat.

Although Tsai maintained that her reform policies were correct, she recognized that she had failed to do enough to bring public opinion with her or to show concern for the reform losers. More fundamentally, Tsai’s government has been accused of pursuing reforms selectively, pushing ahead with reforms that weaken its opponents while hesitating on reforms that may undermine its own position. For instance, the Tsai government has pushed forward reform of military and civil service pensions (a long-time KMT constituency) but done little to address the problems facing the pension system for ordinary workers due to fear of a backlash from increasing contributions or delaying the retirement age.

On other contentious issues, Tsai has failed to chart a middle path that is acceptable to different groups and interests in society. Her prevarication on the gay marriage issue has failed to satisfy either the party’s younger, more liberally minded supporters or older socially conservative followers. Tsai’s cautious cross-Strait policy has also frustrated the party’s pro-independence wing who would like to see more aggressive moves toward de-jure independence, and a more aggressive dismantling of the legacy of the ROC party state.

Two and half years into her presidency, Tsai finds herself challenged on all sides. As well as widespread popular dissatisfaction with the performance of her government from wider society, she has also faced challenges from within her party, including calls for her to step aside in 2020 and allow the party to nominate another candidate, most likely former premier William Lai, for the presidency.

The challenge from within the strongly pro-independence wing of the DPP camp to Tsai’s nomination, however, seems to have faded after Tsai won widespread praise for her calm but firm response to Xi Jinping’s speech on Jan. 2 demanding the reunification of Taiwan under “one country, two systems,” and the strange timing of an open letter from four pro-independence party elders calling for her not to seek a second term in 2020 that appeared the next day. Tsai’s path to the DPP nomination for 2020 now seems relatively secure, but her chances of winning the 2020 election remain far from certain. The KMT has renewed optimism about its prospects in 2020 thanks to its local election successes. However, the independent Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) seems to be the most viable candidate as polls suggest that he would defeat all potential contenders, including Tsai Ing-wen.

Looking ahead to 2019, it will be difficult for Tsai to resolve the many policy challenges that bedevilled her administration. However, in order to leave a legacy, it is not too late to keep the promises she made in 2016: to have a government that is more willing to listen to people, solve difficulties and be transparent, and continue to push forward a reform agenda.

Mark Weatherall is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, National Taiwan University and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University.

Kai-Ping Huang is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at the National Taiwan University. Image credit: CC by the Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

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The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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