Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen ends second year in office with strong economy, but low poll numbers

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

On Sunday, Tsai Ing-wen marked the second anniversary of her inauguration as the fourth democratically elected president of Taiwan.

On that day two years ago, she said the purpose of electing a new leader is to “resolve problems.” And this is what she has committed herself to doing.

Tsai has taken advantage of her initial high approval rating and legislative majority to tackle hot-button issues, particularly on the domestic front.

At the top of her list of achievements is Taiwan’s economy.

Riding strong demand around the world, Taiwan’s growth in 2017 hit 2.86 percent, the highest point in three years. This year it is projected to hold steady at 2.42 percent.

The island’s unemployment rate also dropped to a new low of 3.63 percent in January. As of April, the local bourse hit 10,000 points for the 12th straight month.

Looking to the future, the Tsai administration has sought to shift the export market from a heavy dependence on China and Hong Kong by pushing a “New Southbound Policy” to develop closer ties with South and Southeast Asian countries.

In addition, Tsai has proposed various initiatives to promote industries of the future in areas such as biomedical and clean-energy technologies. Her goal is to achieve a nuclear-free homeland by 2025.

And looking even farther ahead, Tsai’s planners have proposed initiatives to encourage population growth and immigration, especially of skilled and white-collar workers.

The president’s efforts on the domestic front have been equally impressive, although the sensitivity of many areas addressed by her administration has caused an overall decline in personal popularity.

While recent polls show that the majority of Taiwanese are in favor of the government’s efforts to tackle long-standing domestic problems, some changes made to labor laws, public pensions and green energy, for example, have left many dissatisfied and angry.

“Simply put, Tsai offends not only her party’s base supporters who think reform initiatives are not aggressive enough, but also opposition sympathizers who believe the reforms are politically motivated and moderates who are sick and tired of the two parties,” said Tai Li-an, a prominent pollster who helps conduct polls for an online publication.

One of the larger problems Tsai has had to contend with is relations with China.

While she has done everything she promised to avoid rocking the cross-strait boat, her various goodwill gestures have gone unheeded by Beijing, which has continued to exert pressure on Taiwan both diplomatically and militarily.

“It’s unrealistic to expect her to accept any principle that implies Taiwan is part of ‘One China,’ however defined,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center in Hawaii.

In the meantime, Beijing continues to play the villain, “taking its campaign of squeezing Taiwan to absurd lengths in foreign countries,” Roy added.

On Sunday, Tsai said Taiwan will step up security to respond to military threats from China. Responding online to questions from the public follow mounting pressure by Beijing, Tsai wrote, “We will strengthen our work for the whole society’s security.”

Tsai gave no details of possible new measures, but her government is encouraging development of a domestic arms industry to reduce reliance on imported weapons.

While some urge Tsai to change her cross-strait policy, few believe she will do so.

“Taiwan has had good reason to lean toward the United States,” said Tung Li-wen, a Taiwan Thinktank consultant. “I don’t know what Beijing expects Taiwan to do when it closes doors while the United States opens them.”

The outcome of November’s nationwide local elections will be pivotal for Tsai. If her Democratic Progressive Party has a good showing, Beijing may reconsider its Taiwan policy, Tung said. The same would especially be true if Tsai is re-elected in 2020.

As for Tsai’s declining popularity, analysts suggested it shows that she is not playing favorites, as has long been the case in Taiwanese politics, where ruling parties reward their majority supporters. Tsai would seem to be driven by the philosophy that everybody must give something for the greater good of society as a whole.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming elections, most believe that progress at home must continue.

Reaching internal consensus on cross-strait policy is a good way to start, Roy said, with both sides respecting each other’s positions and recognizing that there are two competing nationalisms at play.

With respect to addressing injustices during the authoritarian Kuomintang rule, Roy said he would like to see less focus on retribution for past wrongs and more on cooperating to prepare for a shared future.

It is also important to foster informed public discussion and debate of important national issues, with the media leading the way, he said.

Information from AP added