TAIPEI - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced on Tuesday (Sept 5) that popular Tainan mayor Lai Ching-te, a rising star touted to be a potential president, will become her new Premier in a reshuffle seen as a move to shore up her administration ahead of next year's local elections.
Putting Mr Lai, 57, in charge of the Cabinet will allow Ms Tsai to overhaul her increasingly unpopular government ahead of the mayoral and city councillor elections in which her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) aims to retain, if not win, more seats in six cities.
Mr Lai is the "most suitable person" to take over and carry on with the government's path to accelerate the transformation of the economy and society, Ms Tsai said at a press conference at the presidential office in Taipei on Tuesday.
She said that the new premier will unveil his new team of ministers in the days to come. The power transition, she added, will be seamless and the government's push for reforms "will continue".
A Harvard-trained medical doctor, Mr Lai was a lawmaker for four consecutive terms and a whip of the DPP caucus before becoming in 2010 the mayor of Tainan, the DPP's southern stronghold. He is shown by party-affiliated surveys to be a strong potential contender for the 2020 presidential election.
He replaces Premier Lin Chuan, who formally resigned on Sunday after just 15 months in the job and amid approval ratings of below 30 per cent.
Mr Lai pledged to build on the foundation laid by Mr Lin and deepen the implementation of reforms.
"A few months ago, Mr Lin and Ms Tsai sat me down and told me to prepare for bigger challenges ahead," Mr Lai said at the press conference.
“I’ll redouble our efforts to reform and transform, for the benefit of the people of Taiwan."
In announcing his resignation on Monday, Mr Lin, 65, said he had completed his "mission" as Premier and had told the President of his intention to quit back in June. He was stepping down, he said, so that "the administration can move on to the next stage of government".
Mr Lin and his Cabinet will step down en masse on Thursday. His successor will formally take over on Friday.
“The Tsai administration is looking past early economic policy initiatives to larger geopolitical issues,” Mr Peter Kurz, Citigroup Inc.’s head of
Taiwan research, wrote in a note ahead of Mr Lai’s appointment, reported Bloomberg.
Her concerns include China’s own reshuffle next month, after which President Xi Jinping might have “enhanced powers and more time to focus on China-Taiwan relations,” Kurz said.
Mr Xi has sought to isolate Mr Tsai over her refusal to publicly endorse the idea that Taiwan is part of China. Beijing, which considers Taiwan a province, has also curbed mainland Chinese tourist trips to the island and blocked it from participating in international bodies.
While Mr Lai has recently spoken about having an “affinity towards China”, his past support of Taiwanese independence may reassure DPP faithful without further provoking Beijing, suggests the Bloomberg report. Relations across the Taiwan Strait are the President’s responsibility, not the Premier’s.
Under outgoing Premier Lin, the government pushed through a slew of reforms and Bills, including a new labour Bill regulating days off, a national pension scheme and an ambitious infrastructure plan. The Cabinet, or the Executive Yuan, also kick-started efforts to revitalise Taiwan’s economy like launching the Asian Silicon Valley to lure investments to grow the island’s tech sector.
Taiwan’s economy is showing signs of recovery, prompting the government last month to raise its growth forecast for this year and predict further gains for next year.
But Mr Lin has been widely criticised by lawmakers from both sides after a series of blunders and missteps in implementing policies. For instance, the revised labour law has raised business costs and left workers with fewer holidays, stoking public anger. Controversial pension reforms, to be implemented next year, have angered many retired civil servants, teachers and military personnel, who will have a smaller monthly pension payout.
Also, a widespread blackout last month affected more than six million households and businesses, sparking the resignation of Economic Affairs Minister Lee Chih- kung. Some lawmakers also called for Mr Lin to step down.
A recent poll found that Mr Lin’s approval rating was a dismal 28.7 per cent, with nearly six in 10 respondents dissatisfied with the Executive Yuan’s performance.
Ms Tsai paid tribute to Mr Lin on Tuesday, saying he has been selfless and "withstood a lot of hardships".
Adding that she was "very reluctant to let him go", she said Mr Lin's departure is just an "adjustment in roles" and wants him to continue to contribute in her administration's governance.