Taiwanese leader hurt by recent setbacks
TAIPEI — Taiwan and its leader, Tsai Ing-wen, had the wind in their sails last year as the island battled the coronavirus, grew its economy and gained vocal support from Washington.
Now President Tsai faces a trio of setbacks threatening to undermine her popularity amid mounting pressure from China: a crippling drought, ongoing power outages and the worst increase to date in Covid cases- 19 in Taiwan.
Some tensions have eased in recent days. It rained again and more vaccines are on the way. Yet the confluence of crises creates a rare opening for the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which has fought for a return to relevance and which favors closer ties with Beijing.
Ms Tsai, who defeated the Kuomintang last year to win a second term, saw her popularity drop below 50% for the first time since being re-elected in a poll led by a former member of her party.
The crises have tarnished his image as a pragmatic and capable technocrat, and complicate his efforts to maintain a delicate status quo with an increasingly assertive Beijing, which has never ruled the democratic island but claims it as part of Chinese territory. .
Although Ms Tsai is unable to stand for re-election again, crises are eroding the political fortunes of her Democratic Progressive Party.
“Popularity and elections are not our priority right now. It’s people’s health, ”a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s presidential office said, adding that the administration was aware and open to criticism.
With the Covid, the Taiwanese leader is in part a victim of her own success. More than 2.5 weeks of triple-digit daily increases brought the total number of cases on the island to 10,956, with 224 deaths. Those numbers are relatively low but still surprising for a population that previously had fewer than 1,200 cases, thanks to a rapid response to the initial outbreak last year.
“The current epidemic is surely impacting the government as people now have very high expectations,” said Ho Ming-sho, professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, noting the island’s success in keeping the pandemic at a distance for much of the past year. .
The island lags far behind other developed Asian economies in immunization, with around 2.8% of its 24 million people having received their first vaccine as of June 4. This is in part due to the slow pace of purchases and the fact that many Taiwanese do not feel an urgency to get vaccinated before the new wave. The new outbreak, attributed to crew members of an inbound flight in late April, has fueled fears that Taiwan’s healthcare system will soon be overwhelmed.
On May 26, the head of Taiwan’s leading medical institution, National Taiwan University Hospital, posted a call for more resources on his personal Facebook account, claiming that the beds in the hospital’s intensive care units were already full. The next day, the Taipei Medical Union warned that the island’s medical capabilities were being exploited to the max. “If it’s not a health system failure, then what is a failure? The union wrote in a statement.
Beijing has said it is ready to provide vaccines to Taiwan, an offer the island’s health minister rejected, saying Taiwanese would not dare to use them.
Meanwhile, the Kuomintang criticized the Tsai administration for demanding that imported vaccines have documents showing they came directly from the factory, which it said has discouraged businesses and religious groups from donating. vaccines purchased on the open market.
“Why does the government always look for excuses to refuse vaccines and find thousands of reasons to obstruct multiple channels of vaccine acquisition? KMT chairman Johnny Chiang said last week.
The KMT said it put the interests of the people first. Fan Chou, political commentator and author of several books on Taiwan-China relations, said the party appeared to “use the pandemic to win votes in future elections.”
Mr. Chiang said it is the responsibility of the opposition party to hold the government accountable.
“As a political party, our attention to saving lives obviously takes precedence over political considerations,” he said in written comments to The Wall Street Journal.
Administration spokeswoman Tsai dismissed the KMT’s criticism of the vaccines.
A plane carrying 1.24 million doses of the vaccine from Japan landed in Taipei on Friday. Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said earlier in the week that a plan to deliver one million vaccines per week would begin once 20 million vaccines purchased by the island start arriving in late June. . The Taiwanese government has also pre-ordered 10 million domestically-made vaccines, which Tsai said could be available as early as July.
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Meanwhile, the epidemic continues to spread despite social distancing measures. The daily tally of newly reported cases recently climbed back above 400 after plunging to 300 earlier in the week.
The pressure of the pandemic is adding to other tests. Taiwan’s worst drought in half a century has hampered the island’s semiconductor industry, a major engine of economic growth, and contributed to large-scale blackouts in Taipei and other areas. other large cities.
While recent bouts of rain have eased the drought – and a rainstorm on Friday turned the streets of downtown Taipei into rivers – power outages continue to hit parts of the island.
The blackouts illustrate how the government overlooked risks in the design of Taiwan’s power system, said Hung Sun-han, an environmentalist-turned-lawmaker for the ruling Progressive Democratic Party. Taiwan generally relies on hydropower as a “back-up pitcher” during times of high demand for electricity, he said.
State-owned Taiwan Power Co. blamed the power outages on human error and maintenance schedules.
“The DPP has been in power for more than five years – enough time to fix things – but it hasn’t done the job,” National Taiwan University’s Mr. Ho said, citing the persistence of problems. long-standing management in public enterprises. .
Another example, he said, was the island’s rail operator, Taiwan Railways Administration, which was held responsible for the deadliest train crash in decades that killed 50 people in April, following a similar derailment in 2018 that killed 18 passengers and injured 187.
A spokeswoman for Ms Tsai said that “state-owned enterprises need to be reformed and are being reformed… People will eventually see the changes that are happening gradually.”
Although Ms Tsai will not face any pressure for re-election during her second term, her popularity will play a role in the August referendum, which includes a vote on pork imports that could complicate trade talks with the United States. . She described the vote as important for pushing back economic coercion from China.
“Until the issues are resolved, public satisfaction with the DPP will continue to decline,” said Ting Jen-fang, professor of political science at National Taiwan Cheng Kung University.
Write to Joyu Wang at [email protected]
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