What you need to know
Tsai broke the news to CNN on Tuesday, saying she wanted to 'complete' her vision for Taiwan.
Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) laid to rest any speculation she would step aside as her party’s presidential candidate in 2020, confirming to CNN in an interview that she would run for re-election and seek another four-year term as president of Taiwan.
Tsai said Tuesday in an interview with CNN’s Matt Rivers that she wanted to “complete” her vision for Taiwan and finish what remains on her agenda.
The statement comes despite her turbulent domestic popularity in the wake of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s crushing defeat in the Nov. 24, 2018 regional elections. Tsai has regained public goodwill by firmly standing in opposition to hostility from Beijing and Chinese President Xi Jinping, but it remains to be seen whether popular approval of her cross-Strait stance manages to give life to the DPP’s largely unpopular domestic agenda.
Tsai stepped down as DPP chairperson after the party’s November election losses and has faced calls to not seek re-election by senior “deep Green” members of her own party. Some within the DPP have been perceived to favor a presidential run by former Premier William Lai (賴清德), who is seen as a more immediate and fervent proponent of Taiwanese independence.
But Tsai has ultimately retained enough support within her own party, which still controls Taiwan’s legislature. A new cabinet, helmed by Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), was named late last month.
To international observers, Tsai’s presidency has been largely defined by her fortitude in resisting Chinese aggression. Beijing has flexed its muscle by conducting large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, pressuring international corporations to list Taiwan as a part of China on their websites and refusing to rule out the use of military force to assert sovereignty over Taiwan, among other things.
Domestically, Tsai’s presidency has drawn harsh criticism from supporters of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) along with pro-independence voices within her own party.
The Tsai administration pushed through an unpopular slate of pension reforms in 2018 which were met with large-scale protests. Its perceived inaction in raising the minimum wage and protecting Taiwan’s labor force has come under fire, as has a Taiwanese economy which appears to have stagnated in the midst of a global economic slowdown.
Tsai’s government has also lost support for its failure to push through reforms favored by progressives. It did not pass legislation after Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled in May 2017 that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right and ordered Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to act on the decision within two years. Instead, voters were asked to decide on several confusing and hotly controversial referendums on Nov. 24, 2018. Pro-marriage equality measures were defeated, leaving Taiwan’s legislature in a bind it has not yet found its way out of.
The DPP’s energy policy has also been criticized. Its plan to abolish nuclear power by 2025 was shot down in a separate November referendum, unofficially backed by several prominent figures within the KMT. Since the referendum, Taiwan’s cabinet has vacillated on its energy policy, saying on Jan. 31 it would still phase out nuclear power by 2025. Pro-nuclear groups have responded by saying they will propose three new referendums to be decided on by voters in 2020.
While Tsai’s domestic approval rating sunk after the election, there are signs her assertive response to a Jan. 2 speech delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping may have given her momentum – a sentiment repeated frequently in international media. However, there is still little indication that this has transferred to a bump in domestic popularity.
Tsai is expected to face a difficult battle for re-election in 2020, although it may still be early to reliably project the outcome of the upcoming election. CNN cites a poll by KMT-leaning United Daily News as showing Tsai down as much as 30 percentage points to potential KMT rival Eric Chu (朱立倫), who she defeated in 2016 and who has announced his intention to run in 2020. Public opinion polls in Taiwan, however, are notoriously unreliable, and the KMT is yet to select its 2020 presidential candidate. (The selection process could be about to get ugly.)
Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), an independent, is also rumored to be considering a run for the presidency and it set to visit the United States next month in what may be a preparatory move for his campaign.
The DPP has begun to set its legislative agenda, announcing on Monday it would prioritize bills mandating that any cross-Strait peace treaty with China is subject to a referendum and banning Taiwanese citizens who hold Chinese residence permits from seeking public office in Taiwan.
Tsai said in her CNN interview her greatest regret so far has been taking too little time to speak with and listen to voters since taking office, repeating a personal lament she shared immediately following the Nov. 24 DPP election defeats.
If voter behavior follows that of last November – when the DPP was punished for a floundering domestic agenda – the Taiwanese public will surely be watching closely to see if the ruling party can score any legislative victories and give Tsai some much-needed wind in her sails.
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