Tough road for Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen as popularity falls after rocky start to presidency

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaking during a press conference in Taipei on Aug 20, 2016.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaking during a press conference in Taipei on Aug 20, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is battling falling popularity and increased pressure from Beijing as she approaches 100 days in office marred by controversy.

Since she took the leadership in May, Ms Tsai has been faced with a litany of challenges, from a missile mistakenly fired towards to China, to labour protests and rows over personnel appointments. Ties with rival Beijing - which has a deep distrust of Ms Tsai - have become increasingly frosty, with China recently saying it has cut off official contact with Taipei.

The public support that swept Ms Tsai into power by a landslide is now wavering. Her support ratings have fallen to around 50 per cent in recent surveys, from highs of 70 per cent.

Ahead of her 100th day in office on Saturday, Ms Tsai admitted her new government "hasn't done well enough".

"I hope that others do not use 100 days to judge the success or failure of my leadership," she told reporters last week. "Reforms need time."

Voters backed Beijing-sceptic Ms Tsai after many saw a rapprochement with China under previous president Ma Ying-jeou as benefiting big business, not ordinary Taiwanese.

There were also fears closer cross-strait relations would threaten Taiwan's sovereignty - China still sees the self-ruling island as part of its territory to be reunified.

Since she took the reins, Ms Tsai has apologised to the island's aboriginals for historic injustices, pushed for pension reform and launched a budget she says will boost new industries and social care.

But some voters feel she has focused on the wrong issues.

"Most young people can't save money or dare to think about buying their own homes with low salaries... This is the priority for us, not political reforms," said Taipei office worker Wang Chuan-yi, 26.

Others say the government has flip-flopped, including meeting the demands of recent labour protesters over working conditions and layoff compensation.

"Tsai's government frequently changes its policies once there are backlashes or street protests," said 45-year-old Taipei businessman James Lee, who also criticised her for expensive tastes, including hiring a personal cook.

"Before the election she showed the image of being close to the people and ate at roadside stalls," he told AFP.

As Ms Tsai fights fires on the domestic front, Beijing is also piling on the pressure for her to acknowledge that there is only "one China".

Ms Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party is traditionally pro-independence, has never backed that concept, unlike her predecessor Ma of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang.

As a result, Beijing has cut official communications and persuaded several countries to deport Taiwanese citizens to the mainland, despite the island's repeated objections.

Ms Tsai said recently her government has "done what it can" to maintain ties and called on both sides to bear joint responsibility for cross-strait peace.

While the public is wary over ties with Beijing, it overwhelmingly supports peace between the two sides. However, Ms Tsai also has to appease the staunch anti-China factions within the DPP.

To keep the party under control, she needs to maintain public support for her leadership, says Mr Wang Yeh-li, a political scientist at National Taiwan University, something he feels she is struggling to do.

"Public discontent is rising as Tsai's policies are seen as fickle and aimed at pleasing certain minority groups that are long-term DPP supporters," said Mr Wang.

Ms Tsai was forced into an embarrassing withdrawal of her nominees for two top judicial posts earlier this month. That followed a backlash from members of her own party and other critics who said one of the candidates had helped silence dissent as a prosecutor under authoritarian KMT rule in the 1970s. The other was accused of plagiarism.

It is now time for Ms Tsai to take control and re-connect with voters, said Mr Shih Cheng-feng, a political analyst at National Dong Hwa University.

"She has yet to show strong leadership and hasn't sorted out her priorities to focus on things that resonate with the public...they will grow more and more impatient," said Mr Shih.

However, some voters remain sympathetic.

"We need to give Tsai more time," said Taipei florist Catherin Kang, 38. "Many policies and infrastructure projects can't be realised right away."