LIKE a nervous candidate in a job interview, shy yet formal, she fielded questions ranging from how to handle Chinese infiltration to why she always wears trouser suits. Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s usually plain-speaking president, marked her second anniversary in office with a rare live interview with a critical website.
Ms Tsai badly needs to restate her case to the people. In two years her approval ratings have slumped from almost 70% to as low as 26%, according to a broadcaster, TVBS; the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation says 48% of her compatriots disapprove of her performance, against 39% in favour. She has lost ground especially with the young, whom she has eagerly courted.
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Elected in a landslide in 2016, Ms Tsai blazed a trail as the first female leader of a Chinese-speaking country in modern times. Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also won a majority in Taiwan’s parliament for the first time, finally ending the grip of the Kuomintang (KMT) that began when Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled to Taiwan from mainland China in 1949.
But her promise to revive the island’s economy, which used to be tigerish but has grown sluggish, remains unfulfilled. At the same time, tension with China has grown, despite Ms Tsai’s efforts to restrain the more radical wing of the DPP, which wants to declare formal independence, rather than maintain the current fiction that the government of Taiwan notionally represents the whole of China. Such a step, China has said, would be grounds for war.
Ms Tsai has tried to appeal both to business, in the hope of stimulating the economy, and to workers and environmentalists, the bedrock of the centre-left DPP. She has ended up pleasing neither. The DPP has promised to phase out nuclear power, but Ms Tsai allowed two shuttered reactors to restart after a big blackout last year, to the dismay of greens who object to nuclear energy despite its minimal greenhouse-gas emissions. In the name of workers’ rights, she issued new rules on working hours, which companies denounced as unduly rigid. When she modified them somewhat, unions howled.
Wages are barely higher than 15 years ago (see chart), largely because of increasing competition from manufacturers in China and elsewhere, which has left Taiwanese employers with little leeway to increase salaries. Many frustrated young university graduates have left the country in search of better opportunities. Ms Tsai has raised the monthly minimum wage by 10%, to NT$22,000 ($733). This year she also increased civil servants’ pay by 3%. Yet on May 1st thousands of workers took to the streets, waving banners reading “Fight for a higher salary”.
Taiwan has one of the lowest levels of foreign investment in Asia, points out William Foreman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Ms Tsai’s government has given tax breaks to angel investors. She has also tried to pare regulation, giving firms more leeway to experiment with financial services, for example. And she has identified five industries in which she thinks Taiwanese firms can compete internationally: defence, biotechnology, clean energy, the internet of things and smart machinery—although only the last of these, notes Stephen Su of the Industrial Technology Research Institute, is currently a significant earner for local businesses.
Economic growth has picked up, from 1% year-on-year in the quarter in which Ms Tsai took office to 3% in the first quarter of this year. But workers are not feeling the benefit. Other reforms, however, have bitten. The government’s (much needed) cuts to pensions for civil servants and teachers prompted big demonstrations. Last month hundreds of veterans scuffled with police and threw smoke-bombs to protest against plans to cut military pensions too.
On social issues Ms Tsai has wobbled. Before she was elected she put out a video supporting gay marriage. But once in power, the DPP backed away and dithered. In the end it was the constitutional court that ruled in favour of gay marriage a year ago, instructing parliament to enact the necessary laws. It has not yet done so. That has left young people disillusioned, says Jason Hsu, a KMT lawmaker, who believes gay marriage was one of the main reasons Ms Tsai captured the youth vote.
Ms Tsai also promised to provide a proper accounting of the human-rights abuses committed during the KMT’s long, harsh dictatorship, and to remove all monuments glorifying this era. But she has appointed a former member of a watchdog agency under the previous KMT administration to head the committee in charge of this project. This has upset some in her own party. Meanwhile, a law that strips the KMT of wealth deemed ill-gotten has infuriated the opposition.
The KMT is still reeling from its defeat in 2016 and the legislative setbacks that followed. Its leadership is weak. But Ms Tsai faces opposition of a different sort. Two ex-presidents (one from the DPP and one from the KMT) and many prominent politicians, especially within the DPP, want her to permit a referendum on independence—something that would provoke a dire response from China. She is resisting, while counting on an economic upturn to bolster her fortunes. “We’ve spent most of my first two years in preparation, including legal preparation, so in my presidency’s next two years we will speed up the pace of implementation,” she said in her online interview. But time flies.