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Taiwan’s president won a landslide election — and then her popularity sprang a leak

Tsai Ing-wen, a law professor known for consensus seeking and rebuilding her once-fractious political party, grabbed an early lead in Taiwan’s presidential race last year and won the January election by a landslide. She took office in May with more than a two-thirds approval rating, replacing a party that had fallen out of favor with voters.

And now, it seems, so has she.

Tsai’s poll ratings have plummeted 25 percentage points since she took office, and that hasn’t been the only sign of discontent.

This month, 10,000 tourism industry workers took to the streets, protesting that her government had allowed arrivals from China to slip. A week earlier, 110,000 people demonstrated outside the presidential  offices, voicing opposition to a pension reform plan that, they feared, would diminish their retirement benefits.

People in Taiwan suddenly expect Tsai to act faster and more decisively on sticky issues that they felt her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, failed to resolve, political analysts and polls have found. Voters want her to revitalize a barely growing half-trillion-dollar economy, raise people’s incomes and make headway with Beijing on trade and investment links, including tourism that has fallen from a record 3.4 million visits last year.

Meeting those expectations will be her first political test — and could be a long slog that affects ties with China, a rival of 70 years.

“The new government honeymoon period is over, so in the next half-year, she’s got to come up with stuff,” said Wu Chung-li, a political science research fellow at Academia Sinica, a university in Taipei. “These kinds of protests will become more and more common ... as the industries hit hardest start coming out.”

Pressure has mounted quickly in part because Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party controls 60% of parliament for the first time, making it easier to pass laws.

“In the past, [the party] could not do anything because they were not in charge and could not call the shots,” said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “Now they can call the shots. So little by little, the Tsai government is changing course. You have to do something because once your polls are low, you really can’t do much.”

Tsai’s approval rating fell from 70% in May to 56% in July, according to a Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation survey.  Then it slumped to 45.5% in mid-August, a Taiwan Indicators Survey Research poll found.

Despite a reputation for caution and rigorous consultation before making decisions, Tsai has hardly been sitting idle. She is attempting to revamp Taiwan’s economy by reducing reliance on China, its top trading partner, whose economic growth has slowed since 2010. Taiwan would lean instead toward the fast-expanding markets of India and Southeast Asia.

In September, the government announced a blueprint for an “Asian Silicon Valley” zone to help a $131-billion tech sector that has struggled in the face of competition from China. The government says it will spend $358 million next year on the zone, which isn’t expected to open until 2023.

Exports, the lifeblood of Taiwan’s economy, declined for 17 straight months through June because of changing consumer tastes in electronics, unstable demand in major markets and improvements in the export supply chain of China — which already was cheaper for manufacturers.

Since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, after which Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists relocated their government to Taiwan, Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the island, despite polls saying most Taiwanese prefer today’s self-rule.

In her campaign, Tsai took a harder line on China than her incumbent opponent. President Ma’s government spoke of Taiwan and China as parts of one country, the same language used by Beijing. That proved politically unpopular, leading to demonstrations in early 2014 and ultimately to Tsai’s victory.

Beijing, whose goal is reunification, has not been happy with the change.

China is suspected of slowing permits for its citizens to visit Taiwan, although a slump in Chinese economic growth also could be keeping tourists closer to home. Group travel from China to Taiwan declined 30% from April to June.

Taipei-based travel consultant Tian Yi-hsiu was a spokesman for the travel industry workers who demonstrated against Tsai. “We were protesting to tell the government that we’re sick, and here’s where it hurts,” he said.

His group wants Tsai’s government to discuss the matter with Beijing and plans more protests unless things improve.

As Tsai began working on pension reform to keep the system solvent, she alarmed teachers, military employees and civil servants, who feared she would cut their retirement benefits. A day after their mass protest, the government said it would hold five forums through February to air all views.

“The Tsai government has only been in office more than three months, so we would urge people to bear with us,” ruling party legislator Lee Chun-yi said. “We will do what needs to be done.”

The president’s spokesman did not answer a request for comment.

Tsai will face growing pressure to propose new conditions for dialogue with China, which would reject any talks that cast Taiwan as independent, analysts say. Without dialogue, Beijing could scale back economic cooperation with Taiwan that it pledged during Ma’s term.

Officials have said no new deals will be signed with China until Taiwan’s parliament passes a bill that gives legislators and the general public more say in the process.

Some fear Tsai may be too tangled in consensus building for strong or quick action.

“Taiwanese people are divided, not with just one position, so for [Tsai], it’s not such an easy matter,” said Wu, the Academia Sinica researcher.

Or Tsai may be taking her time to get things right.

“Whatever their affiliation, I think voters want President Tsai to be more consistent and appear less indecisive,” said Sean King, senior vice president of the New York consultancy Park Strategies. “But she’s served only less than four months of a four-year term, so it may be a little too early to rush to any judgments.”

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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