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September 23, 2017

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Tsai's first year: Hoisted by her own petard

TAIPEI, Taiwan — A year ago today, Tsai Ing-wen stood in the wings on an elegant covered stage outside the Presidential Office. Four months earlier, she had been elected president in a landslide, and now she was about to deliver her inaugural address.

Expectations were high. She was Taiwan's first woman president; she was riding a wave of support that had given her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a legislative majority; she was regarded as educated, experienced and rational; she had made sweeping campaign promises, including to help young people, more evenly distribute economic wealth and make government more transparent; and she was replacing Ma Ying-jeou, who ended his lame-duck term with an approval rating in the teens.

Moments later, as Tsai spoke to the thousands of spectators filling the square outside and spilling into leafy Ketagalan Boulevard amid light, sporadic showers, she laid out how her plan for meeting these high hopes.

The secret weapon, it seemed, would be consensus.

"To build a united democracy that is not hijacked by ideology; to build an efficient democracy that responds to the problems of society and economy; to build a pragmatic democracy that takes care of the people — this is the significance of the new era," Tsai said.

But in the year that followed, the president's policies came out malformed and it seemed that tripping over her party's own ideology — and its repercussions — were to blame. Her legislative agenda was stymied by divisions within her own party, cross-strait relations by impasses on the "1992 Consensus" and transitional justice by a rabid, one-track obsession with the Kuomintang's (KMT) assets.

A Fitful Start

She started her term boldly by siding with China Airlines cabin crew striking over unfair work and pay conditions. In doing so, she signaled a tack that seemed to reverse years of corporate favoritism. In August, Tsai made an historic apology to Taiwan's indigenous people, winning her plaudits at home and from abroad as she pledged to right the wrongs visited upon aborigines by past governments.

However, it was around this same time that she began her controversial labor reform push, starting by reducing the number of public holidays. It was also then that her approval rating started falling, and it has never really recovered. According to the pan-green Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, her approval rating last month came in at 38.6 percent — down almost 30 percentage points from when she took office.

A common criticism from opponents and supporters alike that is partly responsible for the poll numbers is that the president's policy proposals have little staying power. Draft bills multiply and come and go rapidly as the wind changes and as different lobbies exert pressure. Meanwhile, the public feels little change in the issues that matter most: stagnant wages, dirty air and unaffordable housing.

Pouring Water on Fourth Rails

A major challenge for Tsai has been reforming Taiwan's economy, which is heavily reliant on a few export-orientated industries. Part and parcel of this are fundamental campaign issues, such as pension reform, that are tied closely to both the economic situation and social issues.

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