President Tsai's Ballot Box Balancing Act

President Tsai's Ballot Box Balancing Act
Photo Credit: 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen

What you need to know

Like most incumbents, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen is experiencing mid-term polling blues, but the erosion of identification with either of the two major parties should be greater cause for concern.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration is experiencing the mid-term blues. In July, support for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) fell to a meagre 23.9 percent — only marginally higher than support for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) at 22.5 percent. A majority of Taiwanese voters were undecided on party identification. In the following month, Tsai’s personal approval rating dropped to 29.8 percent, making her a less popular leader than U.S. President Donald Trump in the same period. While Tsai’s approval recovered to 46.4 percent by the end of September, the figures remain well below her May 2016 post-election popularity high of 70 percent.

On the one hand, shifts in preferences are normal in democracies as mid-term campaigns often motivate voters to vote against the ruling party in order to achieve a balance in policies. But the decrease in party affiliation should be alarming for Taiwan’s two major parties. The number of people who feel strongly affiliated to either the DPP or the KMT is declining, while undecided or swing voters are increasing. This usually has two effects on election day: weak voter turn-out or voters that decide at the polling booth.

As a consequence, both parties could face even tougher electoral battles in the future, and these will likely occur on two fronts. First, the parties must manage cross-Strait issues as both a foreign and a domestic policy issue. The majority of voters identify solely as ‘Taiwanese’ (as opposed to ‘Chinese’ or ‘both Taiwanese and Chinese’) but also support the cross-Strait status quo. This makes it extremely difficult for either party to balance demands from Beijing with the demands of a large bloc of voters who have no party affiliation but identify as Taiwanese and believe in the cross-Strait status quo.

The second challenge is managing domestic concerns about Taiwan’s economy and social policies. Tsai’s administration is facing a backlash over plans to overhaul the pension system, and controversial labour reforms such as moving towards a five-day working week. As her administration eyes the mid-term November 2018 local elections and the January 2020 presidential and legislative elections, Tsai’s moderation and attempts to address lower voter satisfaction led to a cabinet reshuffle in September. Notably, Tsai appointed Lai Ching-te (賴清德), the popular former mayor of Tainan, as Premier to replace incumbent Lin Chuan (林全). While surprising many with his previous comments about his ‘affinity towards China’, Lai later clarified his view that a pro-independence stance does not exclude friendlier relations with mainland China. As Premier, Lai has sworn to focus on increasing industrial investment and improving the economic and social well-being of Taiwanese citizens.

As previously argued, the expectations placed on President Tsai are unrealistically high. Like her predecessors, Tsai has moved to diversify Taiwan’s economy due to its heavy reliance on its semiconductor industry. Known as the ‘5+2 industrial innovation development plan’, Tsai has promoted five industries — green energy, smart machinery, the internet of things, biomedicine and defence — and tied these industries to local districts. But like in the past and despite the need for change, the implementation and uptake of diversification has been slow.

Tsai has also introduced a ‘forward-looking infrastructure development plan’ to expand basic infrastructure work and boost domestic demand. Taiwan’s GDP is now expected to grow by 2 percent this year — up half a percentage point from 2016 — while exports are expected to rise by 8 percent. Cross-Strait trade had also increased to US$133 billion by April 2017. Further, Tsai has established a US$3.5 billion infrastructure and development fund to support her New Southbound Policy in an effort to diversify Taiwan’s international partners.

Still, the fact remains that "governing Taiwan is not easy". Fortunately, Tsai is a strong leader. She has demonstrated adaptability, provided a robust platform for reform, and aptly handled the use of Taiwan as a pawn of Trump’s foreign policy towards China. In her 2017 National Day address she stated that "as long as we can resolve problems one step at a time, we will start to see change. This will lead to a better Taiwan".

Many of these "step-by-step" reforms to address systemic challenges will take years to succeed. Tsai will need to reconcile the diverse interests of her own party with the expectations of her constituency. Unfortunately for Tsai, her achievements will be measured in the short term by an increasingly belligerent Beijing and an increasingly disenfranchised electorate.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.