Outlook for the Tsai Ing-wen presidency: Consolidating power, driving reform

Outlook for the Tsai Ing-wen presidency: Consolidating power, driving reform

Taiwan’s first female president hopes her newly appointed Premier will be able to help enact reforms she promised during her campaign.

Tsai Ing-wen’s electoral victory in January 2016 was historic and authoritative. Tsai came into office by defeating her rival Eric Chu from the Kuomintang with 56.12% of the vote; 25.04 percentage points ahead of her nearest rival. This made Tsai’s landslide the second biggest in Taiwanese history. All this, when combined with the fact of her being the first female president of Taiwan, shows just how important Tsai’s victory was for Taiwan’s political history. It was a historic victory for Taiwanese politics that was authoritative for the Tsai administration.

During the election campaign, Tsai’s message was all about the “five big reforms.” The first was reform to what Tsai called “global justice problems;” these related mainly to youth unemployment and affordable housing. The second was reform aimed at improving “government efficiency” and reducing bureaucratic waste. The third was reform to the Legislative Yuan so as to make it more democratic. The fourth was directed at the “transitional justice for Taiwan.” The final “big reform” was directed at “ending society’s antagonism.” In all, this made for quite an agenda and the Tsai administration started with high expectations.

The Tsai administration has struggled to meet these high expectations. Since Tsai’s authoritative win, her administration’s approval ratings have been falling consistently.  There are two inter-related reasons for this. First, Tsai’s base has criticised the administration for failing to live up to its promises. Second, the Tsai administration has been battling to maintain effective governance within the Legislative Yuan. This has made it difficult for the Tsai administration to implement the “five big reforms.” In short, the Tsai administration has been rather underwhelming thus far.

To make matters more difficult for Tsai, Taiwan has been struggling with a number of economic and diplomatic issues. On the economic front, recent university graduates are seeing declines in their salaries, causing frustration amongst Tsai’s young base of supporters. On the diplomatic front, a number of Taiwan’s former allies have withdrawn diplomatic recognition of the island due to financial inducements from mainland China. These include Sao Tome and Principe and, more significantly, Panama. All this has created an heightened sense of political and economic instability in Taiwan.

In hope of alleviating these significant issues, the Tsai administration has been thinking about a reshuffle over the last few months. In Taiwan’s political system, the Premier has significant responsibility for negotiating with interested parties in the Legislative Yuan. Given her campaign’s narrative of reform, a sound and savvy Premier was always going to be important to Tsai’s presidency. However, Tsai’s first Premier, Lin Chuan, seemed unable to run a tight ship from the start and prematurely leaked the names of cabinet members to the press. This very first gaffe was emblematic of Lin’s time in office as he struggled to tame the green and pro-independence factions of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party. This intra-party fight made it increasingly difficult for Tsai to implement her “five big reforms.” Thus, a reshuffle would inevitably involve removing of Lin as Premier – happened on September 4, when Lin handed in his resignation.

William Lai, the new Premier of Taiwan

In hope of moving on to the “next stage of the mission,” Tsai appointed William Lai as Premier on September 5. Lai is a graduate of Harvard and seasoned politician who was most recently Mayor of the southern city of Tainan. While he has never held a ministerial position, Lai was the Chief Whip of the DPP’s caucus in 2010. Tsai’s objective was to ensure that her new Premier would have the experience needed to deal with rival parties in the Legislative Yuan and tame the green faction of the DPP, thereby clearing the way for a smooth implementation of the “five big reforms” before 2020’s election. In this sense, William Lai is Tsai’s means of consolidating power and driving her reforms; her success may well rest on Lai’s shoulders.

Upon Tsai’s announcement of Lai as Taiwan’s new Premier, the value of Taiwan’s stock exchange rose significantly. Moreover, recent polls have suggested that Tsai’s approval ratings have finally started to rise. Thus Tsai’s decision to promote Lai to Premier has done something to increase public confidence in the short run. However, the long run is much more uncertain. Taiwan still faces economic issues like stagnant wages and diplomatic issues of significant complexity. Those problems are unlikely to go away quickly and the Tsai administration must hope that its “five big reforms” will work.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Charles Lyons Jones

Charlie is a Chinese-speaking expert in strategic developments in Northeast Asia and is based in Taiwan. He holds a degree from the University of Melbourne and worked at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission in Beijing.