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August 22, 2017

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Nearly a year on, Tsai's social platform is a mess

As President Tsai Ing-wen approaches the one-year mark of her presidency, evaluations and scorecards are bound to appear in the days leading up to May 20. And don't expect them to be kind.

The Social Democrats issued a scathing salvo on Wednesday, tearing apart Tsai's social policies — ranging from pension reform, to labor rights and marriage equality.

Evaluating the administration's handling of social policies at a specially convened panel, Social Democrats criticized the government for failing to address fundamental problems with effectiveness and concrete measures.

In particular, wrangling over the controversial infrastructure spending bill in the legislature was panned for its haphazard planning and lack of comprehensive rules governing the selection of projects to be implemented.

On labor rights, Tsai was accused of having bowed to pressure from capitalists over new workweek regulations and the axing of statutory holidays.

In policy areas where she was expected to garner more sympathy (aboriginal and LGBT issues), Tsai was accused of not putting money where her mouth was.

The DPP was swept into power not because of cross-strait politics, but because those policies were largely imperceptible to the public. Can Tsai's poor performance on social policy be blamed on current cross-strait relations? We all know the answer to that.

Even if we temporarily give Tsai the benefit of the doubt by setting aside the Democratic Progressive Party's cross-strait stance — much, much more was expected from her administration on social issues.

Her party's campaign platform was based on creating a fairer, more egalitarian society bolstered by principles of openness and transparency. We can understand if her pivot away from China was meant to allow the creation of a more progressive social order with a fairer distribution of economic resources. But, from what we have experienced thus far, the effects of Tsai's policies have been quite the opposite: increased social division, less certainty for labor and more ineffective government spending. Where dissent is most vocal, barricades and barbed wired are erected and deployed.

While a clear course correction cannot immediately be expected on cross-strait issues, Tsai cannot afford to let failures on social policy get the better of her administration.

She must signal a clear stance on implementing existing labor laws, keeping in mind the overworked nature of much of the workforce. On infrastructure spending, she must consider how money could be better used to address declining birthrates, senior care and broader social security nets — rather than resorting to pork barrel politics.

Above all, she must remember she is no longer "Candidate Tsai," but indeed President Tsai. That, in the course of her reforms, she will need to alienate some constituencies to help those who have been disenfranchised. It comes down to what values she wishes to champion: equality and fairness or privilege and entitlement for the powerful few?

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