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2017 Forecast: Domestic Politics

Reform Gets Underway as Approval Plummets


Reform Gets Underway as Approval Plummets


In the course of its first year in office, Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has barely gotten reforms rolling, only to face ire at every turn. Yet for Tsai there is no turning back, making for a bumpy ride ahead in 2017.



Reform Gets Underway as Approval Plummets

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 612 )

Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in as Taiwan’s president this past May, buoyed by 6.89 million votes and lofty expectations of erasing the blights of the past. However, within less than six months in office, the new administration has faced a plethora of challenges as urgent crises crop up all around against the background of a sluggish economy. From pension plan reforms to the revision of the Labor Law to redefine holiday time, the importation of food from the region of Japan affected by the nuclear disaster of 2011 to the revision of the Civil Code on marriage, the administration has struggled to initiate reforms while facing a constant rise in the number of people taking to the streets in protest.

“The administration’s policy toward China offends the extreme right, pension reforms offend conservatives, and the revocation of seven national holidays offends young people,” says Kuo Yin-zhe, associate professor of political science at Tunghai University, underscoring how the Tsai administration has managed to offend practically all of its supporters on the political spectrum.

“I give her credit for her fierce determination to reform,” he says, while also warning that in political science theory, regimes fall not due to the stubborn resistance of conservative opposition, but as a result of social conflicts and unrest arising over the course of reforms, putting them in jeopardy of collapse.

While it is too early to tell if Tsai’s administration is in jeopardy of collapse, once reform gets underway, there is no turning back. Accordingly, the political situation looks rocky in 2017.

Tipping Point: 30%

“There are too many urgent issues on which Taiwan must change, so we cannot waste even one day,” says Kuo. Yet economic concerns dog Tsai along with cross-strait issues, and as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai cannot take the approach of the Kuomintang (KMT). Facing structural difficulty in navigating difficult straits while deliberately pursuing a reform line domestically, the overall situation next year can only be expected to worsen.

A change of premiers or Cabinet reshuffling would seem to be inevitable in the foreseeable future given the current circumstances. “When the people’s dissatisfaction with the government turns to hopelessness, and the proportion of people feeling such sentiments continues to climb, one solution - and a necessary one at that - is to bring in a new Cabinet,” says You Ying-lung, chairman of the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. Unless immediate and appropriate crisis management is taken, even the administration’s legitimacy could be called into question.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, Tsai’s approval rating has plummeted from around 70 percent in May (when she assumed office) to just 41 percent in November, dropping a precipitous 28.8 percent over six months. Moreover, 42.6 percent of those polled disapprove of Tsai’s handling of national affairs, not only outweighing her approval numbers, but indicating that the Tsai administration is facing a leadership crisis.

“Tsai is facing increasing pressure, and if her support drops to 30 percent, it will represent damage to the DPP’s core constituency,” says Dr. Chang Yu-tzung, professor of political science and associate dean of the College of Social Science at National Taiwan University. If the core situation erodes to the point that dissatisfaction from outside the party spreads to inside the party, the Cabinet will have to be changed.

New Cabinet by 2017?

It is widely believed that a new premier or a Cabinet reshuffling can be expected by the end of this year or early 2017. “Tsai’s first wave of Cabinet appointments was aimed at stability, yet it has come up short in fulfilling the people’s hopes and expectations,” says Chang. Next comes crunch time for her administration as reforms the people can sense and feel are introduced, and the unseen succession order will be gradually brought out.

However, key observers believe that while a change of premier is certain, it will not take place in the first half of 2017. One high-level source with years of experience working for the DPP with Tsai says that President Tsai and Premier Lin Chuan have a well-established rapport, and that Tsai will wait until Lin has seen through certain major reforms, including annual pensions, civic housing, and addressing KMT assets, before his departure.

“As the leadoff hitter, Lin was supposed to execute a sacrifice bunt, but Tsai will make the sacrifice meaningful,” the high-level DPP source says. Tsai fully appreciates the thankless tasks Lin must face in his role. “Lin’s place in history is as the first batter up for reform. She (Tsai) will allow him to resolve the difficult issues that have accumulated over the past eight years before his departure,” the source added.

In fact, whether swapping premiers or reshuffling the Cabinet, Tsai exercises ultimate decision-making authority. Tsai is the final arbiter of major policy decisions at the policy coordination meeting held each Monday at 5:00 p.m., which are then relayed by Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang. This represents a break from the precedent of the previous Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou administrations, under which the Executive Yuan made such pronouncements.

Clearly, whoever steps in as the next premier will join a strong-willed and determined president. “Lin’s and Tsai’s temperaments are such that they take action only after thorough strategizing, so things have usually gotten out of hand by the time they finally make a move. This has resulted in more serious spinning of policy wheels than before,” says Chang. At a juncture in which the country needs someone with the guts and determination to take bold action and responsibility, Tsai must think from a different perspective and find someone to complement her and steer the administration out of its current bind. Only then can she break new ground, Chang says.

This is akin to a restaurant whose food cannot satisfy customers’ tastes firing the head chef and replacing him with his deputy, which does little to change things. “You have to get someone from outside the kitchen, or even get a whole new team to run things,” says Chang.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman