Honeymoon’s Over for Taiwan Leader as Policy Fights Slow Reform

(Bloomberg) -- Six months after her historic ascent to Taiwan’s highest office, Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity is falling as she gets pulled into policy disputes and distracted from a promised economic overhaul.

Tsai, 60, became Taiwan’s first female president in May after a landslide election victory on a pledge to avoid the policy inertia that afflicted her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. A stagnant economy under Ma spurred a voter backlash that saw his Kuomintang and its allies shut out of power for the first time since Chiang Kai-shek led them across the Taiwan Strait during the Chinese civil war more than six decades ago.

Now, Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party, which supports independence from China, have found themselves bogged down in squabbling. Work has ground to a halt on an oversight bill for more cross-strait deals like those that defined Ma’s eight-year tenure. Her pledge to boost wages remains unfulfilled. An office created in June to build Southeast Asian commercial ties hasn’t detailed plans for spending a $132 million in budgeted funds.

“I’m not sure she’s that determined,” Adu Wu, 34, the co-founder of a technology startup in Taipei, said last week. “Before the election, she was saying more, but now she has become quite conservative.”

Pressure is mounting on the president to show some success. Tsai’s approval rating has sunk to 26 percent, according to a poll of more than 1,000 people released last week by cable network TVBS. That’s down from a post-inaugural high of 47 percent in June.

DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said in a Nov. 18 interview that the public was confused about Tsai’s priorities, which she had promised would be economic matters. Tsai bears ultimate responsibility for Premier Lin Chuan’s handling of domestic issues, Lo said, describing progress as “kind of slow.”

“Like it or not, she is the one who was elected by the people,” he said, adding that Tsai’s move to take over some decisions had achieved some success. “Hopefully, decisions will be made in a much more efficient, effective way.”

The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation released polling data Monday showing that 56 percent disapprove of Tsai’s performance on the economy. Foundation Chairman Michael You said Tsai needed to clear away some policy distractions to avoid losing credibility.

For an explainer on Taiwan’s relationship with China, click here

Otherwise, “more and more people will not accept what she says,” said You, who also served as deputy chief of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council under the last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian.

The government said last week that the Taiwanese economy was expected to grow of 1.87 percent next year, lagging the 2.6 percent growth that economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected for South Korea, another export-dependent economy. Challenges include declining global trade, stagnant wages, falling tourism and the possibility of electricity shortfalls as Tsai seeks to ween the island off nuclear power.

“The poll numbers vary, but in any case, the government will try its hardest to accelerate its ongoing push for various reforms as a response to society’s high expectations,” Tsai’s office said in a statement Tuesday.

Weekly Meetings

Tsai has found herself drawn into a series of public spats, over the past six months, including allegations by DPP lawmakers that Kuomintang members laundered money through a state-backed bank. Some members of the ruling party unsuccessfully urged Lin to step down after saying he mishandled the scandal. The DPP has also launched reviews of KMT assets going back 70 years and investigations into whether Ma abused power while in office.

The president has begun weekly meetings to coordinate the administration’s response to policy matters, such as a fight over how Taiwan’s national holidays. Both major parties have done an about-face on what to do with the seven days off, with the DPP targeted by labor protests outside the island’s famously raucous Legislative Yuan.

“The legislature is like a circus,” KMT lawmaker Jason Hsu said while attending a business incubator open house last week in Taipei. “We almost have to learn kung fu to protect ourselves.”

Independence Camp

Some of Tsai’s thorniest challenges have come from her own party, where various factions are anxious to use their robust majority to push through pet causes. Some ruling party lawmakers want a pardon for Chen, Tsai’s former boss, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for corruption before being granted medical parole in 2015.

Others have sought to revive Taiwan’s campaign for United Nations membership, which the Chinese government would view as a move toward independence. Tsai’s decision earlier this month to appoint two long-time independence advocates as senior advisers, including one of Lin’s most vocal critics, was seen as a gesture toward the separatist camp.

Such moves risk bringing Tsai closer to a showdown with her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, who has warned Taiwan against any effort formalize its political split from the mainland. While Tsai has vowed to maintain ties, Communist Party leaders have been angered by her refusal to say both sides belong to “one China,” an idea that underpinned improved relations under Ma.

Chen came to his successor’s defense last Thursday, when Sanlih E-Television released a recording of the former president complaining about the Tsai’s political struggles. Chen, whom the broadcaster said was recorded while speaking to an unnamed friend, said she was facing difficulties at level comparable to his own chaotic second term.

“She is only just starting. She has only been there for six months and we see disharmony,” Chen said, calling for both political camps to work together. “We need to be united and walk side by side, so we can build our country. Right now, society is chaotic. The country can’t progress.”

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