Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen under mid-term pressure over economic woes

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has said she will press ahead with reforms, arguing the public will see benefits over time. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - As Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen reaches the half-way mark in her first term on Sunday (May 20), she is under growing pressure from a public tired of economic stagnation but critical of her reform efforts.

An increasingly aggressive Beijing is tightening the screws on Taiwan diplomatically and sabre rattling with military drills, but the biggest protests in Taipei in recent months have not been about China relations, which have triggered mass rallies in the past.

Instead, thousands of military veterans and other civil servants have regularly gathered outside Parliament in emotive displays against pension cuts.

The rallies have seen physical attacks on journalists and the death of a retired colonel, who fell from a wall during a protest.

Ms Tsai has labelled the cuts "painful but necessary" to prevent public-sector pension schemes from collapsing and dragging down government finances.

Some pension funds could go bankrupt as early as 2020 if the system is not overhauled, the government has warned.

Ms Tsai has said she will press ahead with reforms, arguing the public will see benefits over time.

Her moves to revise labour laws, including scaling back public holidays, have also touched a nerve in Taiwan, where salaries have risen little since the 1990s.

"The government has many loud slogans but the policies and reforms have not been well executed and that lowers public confidence in them," said NGO worker Wu Cheng-cheng, 28.

When Ms Tsai took office in May 2016, her approval rating stood at 70 per cent, with wage hikes and improved working conditions part of her election pledge.

Her popularity has since waned, with the economy topping the list of public gripes.

A recent poll by local broadcaster TVBS put her approval rating as low as 26 per cent, although other surveys found it to be over 50 per cent.

Ms Andie Huang, a 36-year-old office worker, believes Ms Tsai should "stick to what she's doing", but hopes for better treatment of workers.

"Our salaries are low and commodity prices are high. We can't afford to buy houses," she told AFP.

Taiwan's economy is estimated to have grown 3.04 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter this year, but analysts say the data means little to regular people who are struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living soars.

Labour groups blame companies for being unwilling to raise salaries and share profits.

Taiwan's legal minimum monthly wage stands at 22,000 Taiwan dollars (S$988.35) compared with 15,840 Taiwan dollars 20 years ago.

Young voters like Mr Carter Chen, 21, question whether Ms Tsai can fulfil her promises to boost the economy for ordinary people.

He says his own daily life issues far outweigh any concern over Taiwan's political relations with China, which have deteriorated under Beijing-sceptic Tsai and often grab headlines.

While self-governing democratic Taiwan sees itself as a sovereign country, Beijing views it as part of its territory to be reunified, by force if necessary.

"Right now, many young people can't even make a decent living," Mr Chen said, referring to the 25,000-Taiwan dollar starting monthly salary for college graduates, which has remained flat for around two decades.

"I don't have the time and energy to worry about unification, independence or sovereignty issues."

However, some still believe better China ties are key to prosperity as Taiwan's export-driven economy relies on mainland business.

"The most important thing is to boost the economy and to do that we have to be on friendly terms with China," said Mr Chen Bo-lin, 41, who works for a state-owned company.

The opposition Kuomintang party is still on the back foot after a disastrous election in 2016, which saw it lose both the presidency and its majority in Parliament, but observers say Ms Tsai needs to be careful economic woes do not spark a resurgence.

The main challenge in the remainder of her term will be to "deliver measurable improvements to the economy and ease public discontent" so as not to give fuel to the KMT, said Professor Meng Chih-cheng, a political scientist at National Cheng Kung University.

Local elections in November will be a major test.

If Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) fails to perform well, some analysts say the party may consider fielding a different candidate for the 2020 presidential election.

But Dr Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said moves such as pension reform have been a brave step that previous governments failed to tackle.

He described Ms Tsai's performance as "mixed", but said she was not at risk of becoming a lame duck President.

"Her key challenge for 2020 will be to complete many of the reforms she has started or promised, so that she can make the argument (that) she deserves re-election," Dr Fell said.

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