What you need to know
Tsai Ing-wen is facing challenges from all sides. Polls show winning re-election in 2020 will be a tough task.
Recent opinion polls reveal that public support for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) re-election run in 2020 has sunk to a dismal low, hovering at 20 percent in some lineups, while all of her major challengers lead by at least double digits. Despite her unpopularity, Tsai has announced she will pursue the presidential nomination in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) primary, scheduled to begin this week.
Tsai faces challenges ahead on all fronts. Two candidates from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) have declared they will seek the presidency, and William Lai (Lai Ching-te, 賴清德), Tsai’s former premier, entered the DPP primary earlier today. Other KMT hopefuls may enter the race, as might independent Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲).
Taiwan’s 2020 general election is set to take place in January of next year, the result of which will determine the President and the composition of the parliament in the next four years at a time when China continues to increase political and military pressure against the island nation.
President Tsai’s administration has resisted China’s demands for unification. Her party also consistently refuses to accept the “one China principle” that Beijing insists serve as the baseline for any peaceful relationship.
In contrast, the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT) accepts the “one China principle” under its own interpretation of the "1992 consensus" and has signaled a strong interest in signing a “peace deal” with Beijing. The KMT won handsomely in last year’s local elections and unseated numerous DPP mayors and municipal heads.
While it is still unclear if Ko Wen-je will eventually pursue a 2020 presidential run as has been widely speculated, the KMT is certain to come up with its own candidate to challenge President Tsai. The KMT could field either Eric Chu (朱立倫), the former New Taipei City Mayor and a mainstream candidate, or Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the new Kaohsiung mayor whose popularity has seen a meteoric rise since last year’s local election upset that ended the DPP’s longtime rule of the city. KMT legislator Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) has also announced a presidential bid.
According to a recent poll, all three of Chu, Ko and Han possess a comfortable double-digit lead over Tsai in either a two-way or three-way race.
Without Ko running as an independent candidate, the KMT’s Chu or Han will both beat Tsai in a two-way race with Chu winning by as much as 50.0 percent vs Tsai’s 34.9 percent and Han winning by an even larger margin of 54.9 percent vs 31.6 percent.
If Ko enters the race, Tsai’s support sinks to an even lower 21.9 percent against Ko’s 33.8 percent and Chu’s 34.3 percent in a three-way race.
In another potential lineup where the KMT nominates Han as its candidate, Tsai would have only 20.3 percent against Ko’s 28.3 percent and Han’s 42.1 percent. Han’s popularity appears to have overtaken the once-popular independent Taipei mayor, as pro-China media outlets in Taiwan have been relentlessly promoting Han in the months since last year’s local elections.
The poll was conducted by Taiwan’s Focus Survey Research (山水民意研究) on Mar. 4-5 with a sample size of 1,077 respondents. Ironically, the poll was commissioned by Fount Media, an online news and commentary website that observers see as generally supportive of President Tsai.
The Mar. 4-5 poll is also a marked decline for President Tsai from a previous poll also conducted by Focus Survey Research just weeks ago on Feb. 21-22, in which Chu led her by 46.5 percent vs 37.9 percent in a two-way race. In the February poll, a three-way race between Tsai, Ko and Chu would see Tsai losing by 24.3 percent vs 35.1 percent vs 25.6 percent, while a lineup between Tsai, Ko and Han would be 28.2 percent vs 29.6 percent vs 34.4 percent.
The February poll was commissioned by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation which is known for publishing a series of public opinion polling in the last few years, most of which pointed to President Tsai’s declining popularity. You Ying-lung (游盈隆), the head of the Foundation and a political scientist, is also a noted critic of President Tsai who unsuccessfully challenged Tsai’s role in the DPP in the party’s chairperson election in January.
Speaking to The News Lens, You said that the new poll is further evidence of President Tsai’s chronic unpopularity and only adds weight to the string of polls his foundation has published in the past. In a previous press conference in Feb. 27, You attributed President Tsai’s dramatic decline in the last few years to a combination of flaws in her leadership style, domestic policies, and communication strategy, all of which contributed to DPP’s landslide defeat in last November’s local elections.
According to You, Taiwanese public actually do seem to support Tsai and the DPP’s tough-on-China stance, as indicated by her sharp though temporary recovery in the approval ratings after she publicly rebuked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for unification at the beginning of January. So far, however, Tsai has lost most of the gains in January as her support has plummeted once again.
In the January 2016 presidential election, Tsai won with 56.1 percent of votes against the KMT’s Eric Chu, who received 31 percent. The recent polls would indicate that President Tsai lost a whopping 20-30 percent of support among Taiwanese public since she was sworn into office less than three years ago on May 20, 2016.
Tsai’s approval ratings, which currently hover at around 30 percent, are similar to former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s during the 2012 presidential election, in which Tsai was also the DPP candidate. Ma, however, enjoyed a comfortable lead over Tsai in the polls throughout 2011 regarding which candidate respondents are most likely to support on voting day. Ma eventually won the January 2012 re-election with 51 percent over Tsai’s 45 percent.
Shih Cheng-Feng (施正鋒), a professor of political science at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University, told The News Lens that the weakness in Tsai’s communication strategy was on full display when she decided to announce in an interview with CNN in late February of her intention to run for re-election. Instead of delivering a major speech to assure the public, Taiwanese learned of her decision from an English-language news media. The move was Tsai’s attempt to win support from the United States and an international audience, according to Shih, but it left a poor impression on her dwindling supporters and the already skeptical majority.
The DPP is set to begin its primary process this week, which will eventually select the party’s candidate for the 2020 presidential run. Up until this week, most political insiders have seen DPP’s primary as already decided in Tsai’s favor. Major factions within the party as well as Cho Jung-tai (卓榮泰), the DPP’s current chairperson who is from Tsai’s faction, are all believed to be still supporting the President.
However, in a turn of events, the popular William Lai, who has been speculated as the most plausible contender to Tsai within the DPP, finally declared on Monday morning that he will compete in the primary.
According to the same February poll and also another poll conducted by Taiwan’s Apple Daily on Feb. 15-16, Lai fares slightly better with at least 3-6 percent more support compared to President Tsai in either a two-way or three-way race if he’s nominated as DPP’s candidate for 2020.
One potential impetus for the DPP to replace President Tsai as the presumptive nominee is to save at least a few seats in the parliament, as the general election in January 2020 will also decide the composition of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Most past elections saw presidential candidate’s performance make a massive impact on the outcome of the party’s result in the legislative election. A landslide defeat for Tsai will almost certainly mean the end of DPP’s parliamentary majority as well, if not causing a total collapse.
During Taiwan’s 2016 general election, the KMT originally nominated Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) as its presidential candidate, but she was eventually replaced by Eric Chu halfway through the campaign due to Hung’s very low support in the opinion polls. Hung’s pro-China stance and her statements supporting "unification with China" was widely seen as out of line with Taiwan’s majority, and her support sunk to as low as 13 percent at one point. After the more moderate Eric Chu took over, the KMT still lost to Tsai in the race but managed to receive 31 percent of presidential votes and retained minority control of 35 seats, or 30 percent of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.
As it stands, Tsai will have to beat long odds to win re-election as president of Taiwan. Her party’s ultimate strategy to retain the presidency, along with a presence in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, will become apparent in the days and weeks to come.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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