On May 20, 2019, her third anniversary of being President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen highlighted her achievements in national defense, infrastructure building, economic growth, tax reductions and investment attraction. Despite her Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) catastrophic failures in the 2018 local elections, Tsai was somewhat relaxed due to a recent rebound in her popularity rates. According to TVBS, Tsai’s approval rate increased to 36 percent in May, while her disapproval rate remained high, around 54 percent. DPP’s poll results were more supportive of Tsai, but the mainstream society almost takes her loss of the presidency in 2020 for granted.
In the primary election of the DPP, Tsai is challenged by William Lai, a popular star in DPP. Lai is a former Premier of the Executive Yuan, appointed by Tsai herself from September 2017 to January 2019. Lai’s campaign is unexpected, as the central committee of DPP thought Tsai would not be challenged and the party could quickly close the primary election. However, all these have changed since Lai’s announcement in March 2019.
Lai’s popularity rate is higher than Tsai in most existing polls. It is quite likely that Tsai will fail to win the nomination of DPP and lose the chance of being re-elected in the general election. This means she could be the first president who cannot get re-elected since the first general election in 1996. However, her persistence, a reshuffle of the cabinet, and a series of major policy changes are helping her out of the grave danger. Tsai is adopting three major strategies to improve her popularity rate and possibly get re-elected in 2020.
The major challenge for her is to win the party nomination. As the current leader of Taiwan and former President of the DPP, Tsai has immense financial, organizational, and political resources to marginalize Lai. Utilizing all these advantages, Tsai’s first strategy is stalling the primary, mobilizing popular support within the party elites and the masses, and weakening Lai’s political credibility, even though this puts the integrity of DPP’s primary election into question.
After Lai announced his willingness to compete for the bid, Tsai and her followers started the coordination process, hoping that Lai could renounce his campaign or form an alliance with Tsai as her Vice President running mate. She also asked the Party executive committee to conclude the primary election with flexibility and wisdom and consolidate the consensus in the party. On the contrary, Lai insisted on the necessity and values of an open, transparent, and democratic primary election and his willingness to compete with Tsai on a fair basis.
In addition, Lai’s supporters were gradually marginalized in the establishment. Several legislators who openly expressed their support for Lai failed to be nominated as candidates to run for seats in the coming Legislative Yuan election. The CEO of China Post was requested to resign by the Executive Yuan out of controversial reasons. Some analysts believed that the real reason was that the CEO was a follower of Lai.
A second strategy of Tsai is to stir up the waters of cross-Strait relations, incite anti-Beijing sentiment and rally popular support. Diversionary theory of war believes that leaders with domestic popularity crises tend to be more assertive in its foreign policies targeting foreign enemies, hoping that this could divert public attention away from their domestic incompetence and around popular support. Tsai is using the diversionary strategies.
During the 2016 election, Tsai promised to preserve the status quo to win median voters’ support and endorsement from Washington. Without acknowledging the 1992 consensus as her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou did, she tried to adopt self-restraint on managing cross-Strait relation. However, Beijing had no intention to back down from the “One China” principle and work with a DPP-led Taiwan to develop new political understandings. Add that to pro-independence forces making proactive moves in defense, education reform and economics decoupling, it did not take long for the official cross-Strait relations to be frozen, and military tensions to be on the rise.
Losing the presidency remains a real concern for Tsai Ing-wen, considering the intra-party challenge from William Lai and other strong candidates like Ko Wen-je and Terry Guo.
Beijing’s shift of its Taiwan policies is de facto helping Tsai amass popular support. Many believe that Beijing’s major Taiwan policy objectives have been changed from deterring Taiwan independence to pursuing cross-Strait unification. On the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech on his Taiwan policies. His new interpretation of the 1992 consensus caught Taiwan’s attention. Taipei believed the new consensus was aimed at achieving cross-Strait unification, and Beijing had initiated the process of designing the Taiwan version of “One country, Two systems” formula. A day before Xi’s speech, Tsai said there should be “four musts” in cross-Strait relations: Beijing must appreciate that the Republic of China had existed for a long time, respect the choice of the Taiwan people to live freely and in a democratic system, resolve differences through peaceful discussions and hold government-to-government talks with Taipei through their authorized agencies.
Tsai’s firm stand is welcomed in Taiwan, as unification is not a popular option for its future, and many Taiwanese expect Taiwan to remain autonomous without unifying with mainland China, or seeking independence under the risk of war. What is more, the intensification of the great power competition and rivalry between China and the United States has also helped Tsai promote her adventurous cross-Strait policies. By manipulating a (low-intensity or manageable) cross-Strait tension, Tsai finds the perfect stage to demonstrate her toughness and leadership, which is an significant add to her campaign.
The third major strategy is to please the voters via distributional politics and other policy favors. Tsai’s reform in the last three years almost isolated her from her previous supporters. Retired government employees, public school teachers and veterans’ pensions got cut; labors were constrained by an inflexible law and thus had their income reduced; environmentalists were tired of the air pollution because of Tsai’s energy policies; the legal reform was considered to be a failure; etc.
All these led to Tsai and DPP’s failures in the local elections in 2018. Since then, she reshuffled the executive teams and started a new and gradual recovery process. A special law that allows homosexual marriage is being passed and many young people are proud of this progressive decision; tax cuts will help small and medium enterprises develop; Tsai has promised to increase the social pensions of old farmers and lower the cigarette tax; and so on. However, Taiwan’s budgetary situation is not satisfying. Public debt has reached 30 percent of its GDP and is about to break the debt ceiling. Most local governments, except Jinmen and Mazu, are in heavy debt. A structural reform is necessary, but Tsai is unwilling to work on it.
The three strategies will help Tsai have a better chance of getting elected again in 2020. However, losing the presidency remains a real concern for her, considering the intra-party challenge from William Lai and other strong candidates like Ko Wen-je and Terry Guo. Her proactive cross-Strait policies can attract pro-independence voters’ support, but not median voters who are deeply concerned with regional stability. Tsai promised to fund local construction and development during the 2018 local elections, but it did not help DPP much. Voters in Taiwan are perceived to be more reasonable and politically mature, and thus they are not easily swayed by small policy favors or the empty promises of politicians.
If she loses the presidential bid, Tsai will lead a caretaker government which usually does not make major policy changes. Unless she runs as an independent candidate, but that could further split the pan-Green camp and minimize her chance of being re-elected.
So far, Tsai is trying very hard to design the primary election procedures to become favorable to her and won’t initiate the presidential primary election until she has a better chance of winning, which violates the integrity of political competition and principles of procedural justice. This is not good news for Taiwan’s political development.