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Taiwan's Tsai seeks comeback with cabinet reshuffle

Facing pressure, president chooses political heavyweight for premier

Newly appointed Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang, right, speaks at a news conference on Jan. 11 in Taipei as President Tsai Ing-wen looks on.   © AP

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday reshuffled her cabinet following the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's heavy losses in local elections in November last year. The move is aimed at strengthening party unity ahead of the next presidential election, which could come as soon as early 2020.

The prospects for Tsai's administration, however, remain murky. The ruling party is divided and the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, the largest opposition party, is winning over voters.

Members of Premier Lai Ching-te's cabinet resigned en masse Friday morning to take responsibility for the DPP's election losses. Lai, a prominent member of the ruling party, became premier in September 2017, promising to bolster the DPP's sagging fortunes. Instead, unpopular polices, including pension reforms, contributed to the Kuomintang's big win.

Tsai on Friday announced the appointment of Su Tseng-chang, a ruling-party heavyweight who served as premier in President Chen Shui-bian's administration. Tsai said Su has the experience and energy to make Taiwan stronger. The two leaders are not particularly close allies, having battled it out during the 2012 presidential election. Tsai's choice of Su, rather than someone closer to her, appears aimed at underscoring her commitment to political reform.

But it may be too little, too late for the embattled Taiwanese leader. One challenge for Tsai as she looks to bounce back and lead the DPP in the next presidential contest may come from none other than the just-resigned Lai.

The chatter among Taiwanese pundits is that Lai has stepped down to prepare for a presidential run. The DPP thus faces an uphill battle to get Tsai re-elected, and a growing number of party members are questioning her electability. Many of these Tsai skeptics say the party should bet on the popular Lai's rather than sticking to the president.

If the appointment of Su does not raise her standing with voters, Tsai is likely to face a massive shift of support to Lai within the DPP.

After his appointment as prime minister, Lai declared that he is "a politician arguing for Taiwan's independence." If he does become the party's presidential standard-bearer, Lai's strongly pro-independence stance will undoubtedly alarm China.

Beijing's behavior with regard to Taiwan's presidential poll in the coming months could also greatly affect the outcome. In a speech on Jan. 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his hard-line position on Taiwanese moves toward independence, saying Beijing will not "rule out the use of force" to achieve full reunification with the island.

Former Premier Lai Ching-te, left, President Tsai Ing-wen, center, and new premier Su Tseng-chang pose in a display of unity in Taipei on Jan. 11. (Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

At the same time, Xi tried to sweeten his pitch by stressing that reunification would bring great economic benefits to Taiwan. Observers predict Xi's government will ratchet up pressure on its counterpart across the Taiwan Strait, while offering rewards to cities and provinces where the Kuomintang has gained control, such as increasing tourism from the mainland. 

Xi's speech made it clear that Beijing envisions ruling Taiwan under the "one country, two systems" formula. Many Taiwanese are cool to that idea, and Tsai's immediate rejection of it has won her plaudits from voters.

Some Taiwanese media have even argued that Xi's speech threw Tsai a political lifeline. Most Taiwanese welcome constructive economic ties with the mainland, but remain strongly suspicious of Beijing's unification proposals.

Unlike local elections, the presidential poll is likely to revolve around the question of what kind of policy Taiwan should adopt toward China. If the Kuomintang is seen as being too chummy with Beijing, it could suffer a voter backlash despite its resounding victory in recent the local elections.

It is anybody's guess how things will shake out between now and the island's next presidential vote.

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