Tsai’s Poll Numbers Are on the Decline. Why?

Tsai’s Poll Numbers Are on the Decline. Why?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

With the poll figure inching closer to 50%, Tsai’s honeymoon period has seen its end, a foundation says.

President Tsai’s approval rating has been above 50% since she took office for her second term, but polls show her popular support is thinning on a monthly basis.

With the poll figure inching closer to 50%, Tsai’s honeymoon period, when a new president enjoys greater popularity, has seen its end, said Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), a Taipei-based non-profit organization that releases monthly polls on the president’s performance.

From an all-time high of 71.2% in May, Tsai’s approval rating dropped to 56.8% in October and 55% in the following month, according to TPGF’s polls. Tsai was sworn in for her second term in office in May.

In December, while Tsai’s support stood at 52.8%, TPOF found 36.3% of respondents said they disagreed with her leadership, closing up the 20% gap between approval and disapproval ratings of the post-inauguration period.

Key policy topics

In the latter half of 2020, Tsai’s government has been struggling with several key issues that have been a blight on her popular support.

“A lot of good things have happened to her,” the foundation said, granting her unusually wide popularity throughout the year. But “misfortunes never come alone.”

A December poll by TPOF showed 62.5% of respondents were dissatisfied with the government’s decision to lift the longstanding ban on U.S. pork imports, while 49%, 47.2%, and 44.2% agreed that food security, judicial reforms, and press freedom, respectively, were points of dissatisfaction in the government.

In August, the government announced that it will allow imports of U.S. pork containing the leanness-inducing additive ractopamine from January 2021. The move is considered an attempt to improve Taiwan’s trade relations with the United States and remove a key hurdle to signing a bilateral trade agreement with its second biggest trade partner. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
People join a protest to oppose the import of U.S. pork containing ractopamine, an additive that enhances leanness, in Taipei, Taiwan, November 22, 2020.

It has cost Tsai a great deal of political capital to lift the ban. In November, a separate poll by TPOF pointed out that 66.6% of respondents disapproved of the decision, strongly suggesting that Tsai’s government has failed to “persuade the public to accept the policy.” 63% of respondents said they did not believe the government when it said the level of ractopamine allowed does not pose a health risk.

The level of distrust also explains a high level of dissatisfaction (47.2%) with the government’s commitment to protecting food security. Some worry it may move to lift the ban on food products from five Japanese prefectures affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. In 2018, voters approved a referendum to keep the ban in place.

Despite domestic concerns over ractopamine, analysts believe the policy to lift the ban could still work to her advantage if Taiwan and the United States make headway with a trade deal.

“[I]f the reduced restrictions convince the United States to make progress on a trade agreement, the measure could be a win for Tsai’s second-term trade policy towards the United States,” said Pamela Kennedy, a research analyst with the East Asia program at Stimson.

With a strong bipartisan support for Taiwan in Congress, Washington should be willing to move forward with trade negotiations, but it is unclear when the two countries will start the talks. In early December, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden said he is not rushing into trade deals anytime soon.

By contrast, Kennedy noted Tsai might not have much time to wait to reclaim her popularity, with upcoming elections and referendums presenting her critics an opportunity to “solidify opposition to the import measures given the local impact of Tsai’s moves.” Since September, the main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) has been pushing for a referendum in 2021 to overturn the decision to lift the ban.

Allowing U.S. pork imports is hardly the only subject of controversy that has dented Tsai’s popular support. TPOF said the high level of dissatisfaction (44.2%) with the government’s action to protect press freedom is related to the CTi News shutdown.

Critics say that CTi News abuses press freedom by acting as a mouthpiece for Beijing. The government’s denial of a license to operate on cable television, however, has not extinguished its influence. In recent weeks, the news channel seamlessly switched to YouTube and increased its subscribers to 2 million within two days.

Is the decline dramatic?

For a president, it may be common that a significant dip in popularity follows the honeymoon period, but the movement of Tsai’s poll numbers may defy the usual explanations.

Ma Ying-jeou, the former KMT president for eight years, seems to have been subject to the same fate during his presidency. In his first term, starting in May 2008, his initial approval rating stood at 41%, only to drop to 23% after the government’s bungled response to the Chinese milk scandal, according to the TVBS Poll Center.

The pattern of decline resurfaced at the beginning of Ma’s second term in May 2012. His approval rating plummeted from 40% to 28% after the removal of a ban on U.S. beef imports, and later to 15% due to a KMT legislator’s involvement in corruption.

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Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像
Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shakes hands with main opposition party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen during a televised debate on a free trade agreement with China, Sunday, April 25, 2010, in Taipei, Taiwan.

Compared with her predecessor, Tsai is clearly in a better position, keeping her support above 50% after a 18.4% decline throughout the year. Ma lost a similar 18% in his first term, but had his approval hit bottom two months into his second term.

Tsai also outperformed her first-term numbers. In 2016, her poll number, at 69.9% in May, went down to 38% at the end of the year.

As seen in Tsai and Ma’s cases, it seems typical in Taiwan for a president to lose popular support months after taking office because of controversial policy topics, scandals, or public accidents.

The difference is that Tsai enjoyed a head start in the second term and has managed to keep an approval rating above 50% for more than half a year. 

Support for Tsai has declined, but TPOF said her leadership is still recognized by the majority of Taiwanese voters, attributing the achievement to eight factors, including the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, stimulus measures, and the economy.

Tsai also built her image as a leader by allowing Taiwan’s semi-presidential system to run smoothly, the foundation found. In the second term, she had the premier lead domestic affairs and focused on “what a president should focus on,” including defense, foreign policy, and cross-strait relations.

While the popularity afforded Tsai the political capital to push forward policies as disputed as the removal of the ban of U.S. pork imports, it remains to be seen if she will bring her support back with a policy change that appeals to a broader coalition.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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