Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen is facing some formidable internal challenges two years into her presidency.
Tsai’s deputy, Taiwan Premier Lai Ching-te, has emerged as the Democratic Progressive Party’s strongest contender for the election due to be held in 2020, according to a recent survey by an independent think tank.
Taiwan Brain Trust released a survey gauging voters’ sentiments on the electoral race in two years time, prior to the second anniversary of Tsai’s election victory. It found that Lai has outperformed Tsai by a considerable margin in the popularity stakes.
Slightly less than a third of the 1,074 respondents surveyed earlier this week believed Tsai could snatch a second term, but 44% think otherwise. About 30% said they were satisfied with Tsai’s performance, compared to 51% who were not happy with her work.
Asked whether they would prefer Tsai or Lai as their next top leader, an overwhelming 42% picked Lai, compared with the 24% respondents that backed Tsai.
It’s worth noting that Lai only became the premier in September last year, handpicked by Tsai from her own coterie within the DPP to lead the government.
Not too long after Lai’s promotion, some believed the newly-installed premier, who was very popular when serving as the mayor of Tainan, may aspire to replace Tsai in the next election. So, the recent questionnaire has given fresh impetus to such speculation.
That raises the question of whether Tsai will have to fend off a potential rival from within her own cabinet – if she wishes to continue in the top job.
And if so, what is the best way for her to manage that?
Observers say the more rocky that cross-strait relations become, the safer it could be for Tsai to retain a hold of the presidency, as she is seen as having a more defiant side and likely to snub the previous “one China” parol consensus.
Beijing’s knee-jerk reaction of saber-rattling and bellicosity could play into her hands and in turn do her a political favor by inciting greater anti-China animosity among the electorate, the very base that sent her to the Presidential Palace in 2016.
Tsai could then unite all hawkish anti-China factions and sideline rivals like Lai, whose platform, aside from Taiwan independence, includes reconciliation with China and bilateral negotiations to delineate Taiwan’s autonomy and status.
Anyone who is interested in Taiwan and mainland affairs should expect more eventful years to come as Tsai may want to exploit the incessant cross-strait crisis to her own advantage, a political scientist with the Taiwan National University, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
Judging from their political ties, Lai is unlikely to stand, as Tsai is almost assured of the DPP’s nomination for the 2020 ballot. But she will still have to strengthen her base given her sagging approval rating and seek to shift public attention from the protracted economic slump to cross-strait agendas.
The same survey also found that Tsai’s support fell to 38% if she was to run against New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu of the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party, who could win the presidency if he can maintain his approval rating of 44%.
That is certainly what Beijing would want, and rational policymakers in Zhongnanhai should refrain from menacing the island, and rather wait out Tsai’s remaining term, the same TNU professor said.