ANALYSIS: Taiwan president's first year: Hoisted by her own petard

TAIPEI (The China Post/ANN) - As Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen marks one year in office, it seems her own ideology has stood in the way of success.

A year ago today, Tsai Ing-wen stood in the wings on an elegant covered stage outside the Presidential Office. Four months earlier, she had been elected president in a landslide, and now she was about to deliver her inaugural address.

    Expectations were high. She was Taiwan’s first woman president; she was riding a wave of support that had given her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a legislative majority; she was regarded as educated, experienced and rational; she had made sweeping campaign promises, including to help young people, more evenly distribute economic wealth and make government more transparent; and she was replacing Ma Ying-jeou, who ended his lame-duck term with an approval rating in the teens.

    Moments later, as Tsai spoke to the thousands of spectators filling the square outside and spilling into leafy Ketagalan Boulevard amid light, sporadic showers, she laid out how her plan for meeting these high hopes.

    The secret weapon, it seemed, would be consensus.

    “To build a united democracy that is not hijacked by ideology; to build an efficient democracy that responds to the problems of society and economy; to build a pragmatic democracy that takes care of the people — this is the significance of the new era,” Tsai said.

    But in the year that followed, the president’s policies came out malformed and it seemed that tripping over her party’s own ideology — and its repercussions — were to blame. Her legislative agenda was stymied by divisions within her own party, cross-strait relations by impasses on the “1992 Consensus” and transitional justice by a rabid, one-track obsession with the Kuomintang’s (KMT) assets.

A Fitful Start

    She started her term boldly by siding with China Airlines cabin crew striking over unfair work and pay conditions. In doing so, she signaled a tack that seemed to reverse years of corporate favoritism. In August, Tsai made an historic apology to Taiwan’s indigenous people, winning her plaudits at home and from abroad as she pledged to right the wrongs visited upon aborigines by past governments.

    However, it was around this same time that she began her controversial labor reform push, starting by reducing the number of public holidays. It was also then that her approval rating started falling, and it has never really recovered. According to the pan-green Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, her approval rating last month came in at 38.6 percent — down almost 30 percentage points from when she took office.

    A common criticism from opponents and supporters alike that is partly responsible for the poll numbers is that the president’s policy proposals have little staying power. Draft bills multiply and come and go rapidly as the wind changes and as different lobbies exert pressure. Meanwhile, the public feels little change in the issues that matter most: stagnant wages, dirty air and unaffordable housing.

Pouring Water on Fourth Rails

    A major challenge for Tsai has been reforming Taiwan’s economy, which is heavily reliant on a few export-orientated industries. Part and parcel of this are fundamental campaign issues, such as pension reform, that are tied closely to both the economic situation and social issues.

    Tsai’s push for both economic and social reform, however, has been overshadowed by virulent dissatisfaction over new overtime regulations aimed at curbing the overworked labor force. Unions say the measures don’t go far enough, while business says they sap away at competitiveness. And this battle, which has spawned literally dozens of protests, has masked greater economic issues, including Taiwan’s stagnant wages, aging population and income inequality.

    In the pension reform realm, Tsai started with the advantage of broad public agreement that some kind of change was needed urgently to avoid the pension fund’s impending bankruptcy. It was an advantage her administration would squander as some leaders in the pension reform efforts appeared to scapegoat civil servants for the government’s financial blackhole.

    For defensive public workers, these were dog whistles by a party bent on exacting retribution against a civil service traditionally populated by mainlanders.

    Needless to say, the administration’s plans — which would cut the pensions not only of future civil servants but of those already in the service — proved even more noisy and noisome than the workweek reform. Whereas the labor protesters were passionate, these were bitter, sapping away at Tsai’s reputation as master communicator and champion for social consensus and weakening her power to bring change as a result.

    The Cabinet, led by Premier Lin Chuan, has also struggled to implement Tsai’s policies, including an eight-year, NT$880 billion infrastructure bill that is mired in the Legislature by aggrieved opposition.

Prioritizing Transitional Justice

    Tsai’s administration moved swiftly on its much-vaunted transitional justice. The push, it said, would make meaningful recompense for historical injustices. However, it soon became clear — if it wasn’t already — that there was only one target in her government’s crosshairs: the KMT and its ill-gotten postwar assets.

    A committee with unprecedented independent powers was assembled. It moved to freeze accounts, to divest the KMT of affiliated organizations and to nationalize recovered assets. The effects on the KMT were severe and immediate: Staff went unpaid for months and the party forced to downsize.

    Other transitional justice measured included repurposing Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

    It was all an easy win for the DPP among its base. This was the culmination of decades of hostility toward the perceived injustice that a prewar political party enriched by theft, oppression and cronyism could continue to reap millions in investments and affiliates from seeds planted with money stolen from the Taiwanese.

    But the way the DPP went about getting this win was flawed. First, the glee and single-mindedness with which the committee acted triggered — justifiably — an instinctual fight response from the KMT. Although it was unlikely Tsai would ever have been able to build a particularly strong or long-lasting relationship with opposition lawmakers, the extreme prejudice in the committee’s execution of its role made even the thought of pragmatic bipartisanship fanciful. It has created the ideological rifts that Tsai has sought to avoid in the first place, perpetuating domestic infighting during a period of continued social instability.

    Possibly even more troubling was the fact that as the committee ramped up its work, seizing more assets and ordering more investigations, the administration took no action to manifest other elements of transitional justice — and didn’t even signal intentions to do so.

    Case in point, in the nine months since Tsai’s apology to indigenous people, there has been no tangible action toward fulfilling the promises given during it.

    Aboriginal activists, such as documentary filmmaker Mayaw Biho, say transitional justice has passed them by completely. They point out that whereas the KMT assets drive received a large staff, a powerful committee, heavy promotion and even a shiny new office, the commission tasked with pursuing transitional justice for the island's indigenous population has none of these things. In fact, the aboriginal commission lacks a proper legal foundation and has no funds at its disposal, Mayaw Biho says, meaning it will be incapable of yielding any meaningful change.

    The DPP and pan-green side has been considered — and considers itself — a champion of the rights of minorities, especially aboriginals. But when the time came for Tsai’s administration to get real — to draw up schedules, to propose bills and to distribute funds — this cause took a back seat to the holy grail of DPP ideology.

Dire Straits

    The largest challenge for Tsai has been moving beyond capitalizing on public mistrust of increased economic and political relations with China — which coalesced three years ago into the Sunflower Student Movement and gave the DPP the momentum it needed to oust the KMT.

    Tsai had promised to maintain the status quo with China but also to walk away from the “1992 Consensus,” which had been the basis of cross-strait interaction for the past eight years. By insisting she was pursuing cross-strait relations on the basis of the Republic of China Constitution and other relevant laws in force before her election, Tsai hoped she could placate doubters and supporters alike, as well as Beijing.

    It didn’t work.

    China has refused to deal with her. In addition, not only has it tightened the screws on Taiwan’s international space — pressuring nations not to support its participation in activities such as meetings by the World Health Assembly and International Civil Aviation Organization — it has weaponized its economic policies, such as by cutting the number of students and tourists visiting Taiwan to study and travel.

    The idea of maintaining the status quo with China — but without the “1992 Consensus,” as her party line dictates — has put the administration in another quandary: Opponents blame her approach for the break in cross-strait communication while supporters believe she has not gone far enough to emphasize Taiwan’s separate identity.

Working with Uncertainties Abroad

    Tsai’s doggedness in dealing with China’s repeated snubs came to a critical juncture in December.

    Taiwan, like other countries, has been moving to adjust to the uncertainties brought on by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Tsai delved into that murkiness in a gambit by placing a congratulatory call to then-U.S. President-elect Trump, shocking policymakers in Taipei, Washington and Beijing.

    Tsai hoped to bolster economic and security relations with the United States as a counterbalance to China — a longtime DPP approach to strengthening Taiwan’s autonomy. With her high-profile phone call to Trump, a walking self-promotion machine, she bet big and she bet publicly.

    But again, it didn’t work.

    Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in April, and they hit it off. Trump had played the wild card and Tsai lost the pot. Had she made a more nuanced bet — the kind that educated, rational candidate Tsai might have been expected to — instead of going all in per the DPP playbook, she would still have some chips left to play.

    Tsai commented recently that there was no need for protesters to continue taking to the streets and that she had heard their demands. A day before her one-year anniversary in office, she struck an air of defiance, vowing to continue on her path even if it meant offending people.

    There are three years in which her administration can turn this around.

    Instead of preaching social consensus while actually sowing division, her administration would do well to genuinely take the opinions of people outside her party and base on board when formulating policies.

    One of the major challenges she will need to confront in her next year in office will be making her leadership felt while sticking to her original policy platform so they can move beyond the drawing board — a daunting task tied to ideological legacies and whether to hang on or to let go of them.

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