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Politics

Taiwan's Tsai bleeding support as key policy goals falter

Massive blackout gives black eye to effort to wean off nuclear energy

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office calling for independence both from China and from nuclear energy, but both those goals have run into trouble.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Already saddled with plunging public support over a failure to deliver on key pledges, last week's mass blackout likely only added to the woes facing President Tsai Ing-wen and her government.

Opposition lawmakers laced into Taiwanese premier and Tsai top aide Lin Chuan for the blackout Monday in parliament, saying there was a clear shortage of electricity and demanding to know what the administration would do about it.

The Tsai government aims to get the island off nuclear power in 2025, and only three of six nuclear power plants are presently in operation. The mass blackout Aug. 15 came amid growing concerns that slow-starting operations at fossil fuel plants, which are supposed to provide alternative power sources, may lead to an energy shortage. While human error was blamed for the blackout, Tsai's government took the worst of the heat.

Sliding approval

A June poll by civilian broadcaster TVBS Media found Tsai's approval rating had fallen to 21%, the lowest since she took office in May 2016, while disapproval was triple that at 63%. The blackout will further erode support, say many including Fan Shih-ping, a professor of political science at National Taiwan Normal University.

Tsai's election victory knocked the Kuomintang out of power and brought a Democratic Progressive Party president for the first time in eight years. Her government hurried to enact reforms and set itself apart from the now-opposition, which had largely relied on support from constituents such as businesses and civil servants, but her key policies have failed to gain traction.

One of the administration's main goals was to safeguard workers with job reforms, but the program has drawn criticism even from private-sector employees, the main intended beneficiaries of the push. At the end of last year, labor standards were rewritten to more than double overtime pay. The goal was to cut down on overtime and working on holidays, but it brought frustrating consequences for some workers, such as lower take-home pay due to reduced overtime.

The Tsai government also embarked on an effort to overhaul the pension system, which over-prioritizes military personnel, civil servants and other public-sector workers. But that spurred a ferocious backlash from pensioners. Protests over the changes disrupted Saturday's opening ceremonies for the Summer Universiade tournament in Taipei, with protesters blocking student athletes from entering the grounds for around half an hour.

Pressure from Beijing

The administration's top policy priority of reducing the island's reliance on China is also not going as planned. Tsai's government set out to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asia, but that has borne little fruit besides an uptick in tourism due to simplified visa procedures. China still accounts for about 40% of Taiwan's exports.

Many also worry about the impact of pressure from Beijing. Tsai has shelved the DPP's aspiration for an independent Taiwan and instead pushed for talks with the mainland. But China is leaning harder on nations that recognize Taiwan as a country and have diplomatic relations with it. In June, Panama severed those ties and formed them with China instead.

If she cannot stop her popularity from slipping, Tsai's pull within the DPP will almost certainly weaken. A former academic, Tsai keeps her distance from cliques in the party. On top of attacks from the opposition, she may face increasing criticism from within.

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