How the domestic outbreak hurts the Taiwanese President’s popularity?

As the domestic outbreak continues in Taiwan, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s approval rating has also dropped to below 50% for the first time since November 2019. Experts think the political impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be extended to the local election in 2022.

Over the last few weeks, Taiwan has been facing its worst domestic outbreak since the coronavirus emerged in China more than a year ago. Within a few weeks, Taiwan’s number of confirmed cases went from a little bit more than 1000 cases to more than 10,000 cases and the number of death has also gone from a few dozen cases to 250 cases.

As the Taiwanese government scrambles to contain the outbreak, the island is also suffering from a serious vaccine shortage. Until today, only around 700,000 people have received their first doses of vaccines, bringing the vaccination rate to around 3%, which is much lower than the global average of 27%.

The outbreak has also created new political challenges for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has been repeatedly praised for her government’s success in containing the initial outbreak early last year. According to the latest opinion poll released by the Formosa newsletter, Taiwanese people’s trust in Tsai has dropped to 48.1%, the lowest since November 2019.

Another opinion poll conducted by the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University shows that only 41.7% of the respondents are satisfied with Tsai’s performance while 58.4% of the respondents are dissatisfied with her performance.

The degree of Tsai’s recovery will be crucial

Yen Wei-Ting, an assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall College in the U.S., said over the last year, the Taiwanese government generated an effect called “rally around the flag,’ which means that a political leader accumulated a very high amount of support within a limited period of time when the country is facing a crisis.

“For politicians, a crisis often means an opportunity, because if they can handle the situation properly, it can help them accumulate a lot of support,” said Yen. “The situation of Taiwan’s pandemic has something to do with the rise and fall of politicians’ support and this is a very common phenomenon. Whenever there is a national crisis, it can often create such political effect.”

Lev Nachman, an expert in Taiwan politics, said politicians’ level of support is expected to dip during a crisis like Taiwan’s current outbreak. Since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is the ruling party, it is unexpected to see Tsai’s approval rating drops to a new low in recent months. He thinks what matters is what can Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP do to come back from these low numbers.

“What’s going to tell us a lot is to what degree they are going to come back and how they do it,” said Nachman. “The recovery number will tell us more about how impactful the outbreak is.”

How much political impact did the vaccine support from Japan and the US generate?

Last week, Japan and the US revealed plans to help ease Taiwan’s vaccine shortage. Apart from the 1.24 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines provided by Japan, three U.S. senators also revealed on Sunday that the Biden administration will send 750,000 doses of vaccines to Taiwan. After the AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Taiwan on June Fourth, the Taiwanese government revealed its “10-day silent operation” to seek support from Japan.

According to a report published by the Central News Agency in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government started to reach out to the Japanese government at the end of May. They talked about how to let Japan provide the AstraZeneca vaccines that they have obtained to Taiwan.

Regarding the Taiwanese government’s move, Yen thinks the government is trying to maintain people’s trust in Tsai, and from the pandemic prevention perspective, it is consistent with its typical practice of being transparent since the pandemic started last year.

“I think the government’s decision to make the information public and make nationwide statements is to maintain Taiwanese people’s trust in the government’s ability to contain the outbreak while reversing its slow start in vaccine acquisition,” she said.

Nachman thinks that it also shows that the DPP is trying to create a narrative about how they are combating the pandemic and in a way, it is building on top of the revelation of how the government works with allies behind the scenes to acquire more vaccines for Taiwan. “They are now focusing on framing a narrative like ‘we are fixing the problem and we are doing it in a really well,’” he said.

Will the pandemic’s political impact be extended to upcoming elections?

As the domestic outbreak is not showing any sign of de-escalating, Yen and Nachman both think that before the government contains the outbreak, it will be the focus of the whole society and political parties will not be able to shift the focus to other issues, including the upcoming referendum in August.

Since Taiwan has entered the election cycle for the 2022 local election, Yen thinks topics related to the pandemic will affect how politicians and political parties perform in the upcoming election. Because Taiwan held its presidential election in January 2020, most politicians weren’t able to capitalize on the pandemic when it began early last year.

However, the current outbreak has infiltrated the community, so this is the first time that the central government needs to work with democratically-elected local officials to contain the outbreak. “As we have entered the election cycle for the 2022 local election, the pandemic will leave impressions on voters, and anything that the politicians do will generate political gains,” she said.

Nachman also thinks that the local outbreak could become a key topic in the upcoming election. “The DPP and Kuomintang (KMT) are both trying to construct a narrative that fits their perspective,” he said. “The DPP will try to describe its efforts to contain the outbreak as a success while the KMT will describe it as evidence of the Tsai administration’s failure.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.