Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech at the 107th National Day celebrations on Wednesday. Photo: Handout

Three years into the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the domestic politics, economic outlook, and global landscapes look very different for Taiwan. Beijing suspended formal cross-Strait dialogue after Tsai’s inauguration and embarked on a campaign of pressure against Taiwan.

Uncertainty has pervaded US-Taiwan relations as the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to and engagement in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole has been questioned, and sparked fears that Taiwan will be inadvertently drawn into trade-war clashes between the United States and China. Public support for Tsai’s administration has lagged amid criticism of some of her policies. Political polarization continues unabated. What do these circumstances mean for Taiwan’s present and future?

When Tsai was elected president in 2016, she passionately called on the people to “welcome Taiwan’s new era.” Three years on, the “new era” that she pledged has not arrived. Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party she leads suffered a violent attack by the tsunami of vox populi in the last nine-in-one local elections. The reasons are nome other than the arrogance and abuse of power of the DPP government has reached an extent that the people can no longer tolerate, while Tsai’s coldness and indifference to popular opinion has led her to lose legitimacy as the island’s leader.

Tsai resigned as chairwoman of the DPP on the same evening that the results of  last year’s local elections were revealed. The voters clearly demonstrated the mainstream values in Taiwan, that is, a little less ideology and a little more pragmatic development, while rejecting fierce political fighting and expecting that a president for all the people return to rational mainstream values.

President Tsai called a press conference on May 20, the third anniversary of her administration, in which she enumerated the achievements of her government, hoping that the people would help her overcome the barriers to staying in power. However, she forgot that the DPP, under her leadership, suffered a stunning defeat in last year’s elections. During the past three years, Tsai used various means to inject partisan forces into the government, allowing the neutral, objective, professional, and selfless spirit to disappear from the public sector. It is indeed odious to inundate the government with party factions.

Looking back at May 20, 2016, at that time people of all walks of life showed warm feelings toward the values of progress and rationality that Tsai advocated, while the DPP’s absolute numerical superiority in the Legislative Yuan meant full support for her complete control of government. Who knew that, once in actual power, her administration would become self-limiting with no capacity to bridge the gap between ideals and reality? Her rational humility became cold arrogance, oblivious to the grievances and fury of the people.

After three years in office, Tsai has fallen to the bottom of public opinion. It will not be easy to surge anew; this is the anxiety and worry of the Tsai administration. She doesn’t know how to use her powers to benefit the public; instead, she uses self-righteous reforms, progressive values and ideology to shackle the people and society. Now that her support has slid massively, the legitimacy of her power has also seriously eroded; to push any more changes would be met with challenges, both domestically and externally. Since Tsai took office, she has constantly talked about reforms; now what she faces, however, is the embarrassing situation that she doesn’t know how to “self-reform.” It is indeed ironic.

Tsai’s has had full powers at her disposal, yet in the last three years, her governance has been relegated to the butt of grievances from her party and fury from the people, as the manipulations of power frequently overflow the tracks of democracy. The Tsai government’s special characteristic is to hold power and harm public opinion, while lording over the legal system and covering up illegalities. This has made her unable to feel the pulse of society and the vox populi, even being unable to get in touch with sincere and down-to-earth grassroots, leaving her isolated; she is even afraid of meeting real people and listening to true public opinion.

Economic growth has slowed to its worst level in almost three years. When the economy slows down and incomes stagnate, consumption is downgraded in society; the middle class loses the quality of life that it used to enjoy. For the last three years, the phenomena of degrading governance have emerged one after another and the administration is mired in the predicament of a disorderly government agenda.

Tsai should admit defeat from the core positioning of party ideals, sounding a clarion call for the transformation of the DPP’s narrative. The fundamental remedy is to forsake the party platform of Taiwan independence; without the courage to come up with a fundamental remedy, at a minimum she should have the wisdom to find a stopgap remedy or use a more open-minded, progressive cross-Strait policy as a foundation to propose a new resolution, characterizing the restarting of the transformation of the DPP’s ideals and the transformation of its narratives. If she continues the anti-China and hate-China narrative, unilaterally relying on the US, it will be futile.

If Tsai indeed had accomplished a lot in the three years of her government, why did the DPP have to swallow the bitter fruit of the humiliating defeat in nine-in-one local elections? The reason lies in the fact that her comrades within the party have seen through her problems, while she herself could not change. It is her headstrong attitude that she has been optimistic in interpreting the three years under her rule; while through her personnel appointments and approach to affairs of state, the public could not but see her feebleness.

In the seven months since last year’s local elections, the Tsai government has not only shown no willingness to respond to the public’s expectations, but also repeatedly trampled on them, showing iyd arrogance. Tsai ignored the expectations of the vox populi and continued to tighten the shackles on cross-Strait relations. What is astonishing is that Tsai’s memory of the electoral defeat is so short, and her thirst for power, on the other hand, is so formidable and persistent. Looking back at the drama played by the Presidential Palace and the cabinet in the last seven months, what electorate would still entertain fantasies?

President Tsai Ing-wen has only been in office for three years, and it looks like she has already become a “caretaker president,” only waiting to step down in 2020. In fact, what she should decide is whether to continue to be hijacked by the DPP’s fundamentalist faction, or do the reverse, and hijack the fundamentalist faction. Reducing political squabbling and wrangling to a minimum, and readjusting cross-Strait relations in the remaining 11 months of her tenure, putting more effort into reviving the economy, securing the maximum degree of swing voters’ trust – this is the only right path for Tsai.

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Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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