Does President Tsai Deserve Declining Approval Ratings?

Does President Tsai Deserve Declining Approval Ratings?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
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Taking stock of the DPP a year after it swept through the general election in Taiwan.

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A year has passed since the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) historic victory in the presidential and legislative elections. How should we evaluate their performance and what challenges lie ahead in 2017?

Media in Taiwan and abroad have pointed to Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) declining approval ratings as a sign that the high hope are already over. Taiwan Indicators Survey Research for example reports Tsai’s approval ratings have fallen from 70 percent in May, the month of her inauguration, to 45.5 percent in August. Other surveys since have shown approval rates largely in the 20s and 30s (see here, here, and here). What accounts for Tsai’s falling approval ratings?

Pundits will look for a simple cause that fits within a sound bite, but the truth is seldom so concise. Meanwhile, declining numbers fuel (Kuomintang) KMT hopes of electoral opportunities in the 2018 local elections and Chinese media has jumped at another opportunity to criticize the Tsai administration, claiming a buyer’s remorse among those that voted for the DPP. It helps to view this decline in a broader context. From the U.S. to France to Mexico, presidential approval rates commonly decline within months of taking office. Candidates frequently make campaign pledges that are difficult to implement once in office. Just as even the best hitter in baseball failed to get on base in even half of his at-bats, no administration, however well intended, will be able to meet all of its campaign pledges. The public also accrues greater information about the stances and actions of the president and the party over time.

For a party with its first legislative majority and the presidency, we should expect a learning curve. The first unified government under the DPP provided an opportunity to promote a series of reforms, but tackling multiple thorny issues simultaneously — labor reform, pension reform, the ill-gotten gains debate, and transitional justice to name a few — can come at a cost. Change is attractive among disenchanted voters, but change-seekers are unlikely to wait long or be easily satisfied with compromised solutions. Yet democratic administrations must try appease a multitude of constituencies with often conflicting demands. The lack of consensus within the party on many issues further complicates presenting policies. Intraparty disputes over pardoning Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to the party’s independence rhetoric will likely continue and despite the party’s official position on legalizing same-sex marriage and the likelihood of a vote this spring, at least some DPP legislators appear unlikely to support.

Meanwhile, relations with China have cooled compared to the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, yet the aftermath of a DPP presidency has not been the doom and gloom that the KMT or Chinese officials predicted. Tsai has avoided conceding to a “1992 Consensus” in which the DPP was not a party and which restricts Taiwan’s options with China, with most Taiwanese supportive of Tsai’s support of maintaining the status quo. In addition, despite China’s attempts to restrict Taiwan’s international space, including the end of the diplomatic truce, the Tsai administration has not yet taken the bait to engage in “dollar diplomacy,” instead working to strengthen ties with Central American diplomatic partners.

Tsai must continue to play a two-level game, navigating cross-strait relations in a manner that is both acceptable to the Taiwanese public and that engages China or at least minimizes China’s efforts to minimize Taiwan’s status.

As both president and the chair of the party, Tsai’s popularity can influence electoral support in lower level ballots in future elections, just as my own research found a clear coattail effect in 2016 where those who voted for Tsai, regardless of party identification or demographic factors, were more likely to vote for the DPP in the legislature. However, Tsai’s polling numbers are not unlike her predecessor Ma's at the same time in his first term. Nor does low approval ratings necessarily translate to electoral defeat, as Michael Turton points out in with Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings of under 40 percent leading into the 2012 election. The indirect role of the Trump administration also may influence Tsai’s popularity, whether enhanced U.S. Taiwan relations come to fruition, which could boost approval ratings, or, if Trump emphasizes Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China, Tsai’s numbers could take a hit. Similarly, how Tsai and the DPP address economic concerns will impact evaluations, as the administration must contend with an economic growth rate expected to fall under two percent in 2017 while seeking opportunities that decrease reliance on China, such as the “Go South” policy.

Administrations should be evaluated by addressing public needs, needs which may or may not be properly captured in public opinion polls. Despite the shadow China casts over Taiwanese politics, the DPP benefits from maintaining a focus on domestic reforms in that it potentially aids in expanding the party’s electoral base and undermines a traditional KMT’s electoral strategy. The transition and learning periods are over: this administration’s legacy will be largely shaped by its success or failure in passing a domestic reform agenda that reshapes public perceptions of accountability and representation.

Editor: Edward White