Taiwan’s Tsai Names Rising Star as Premier to Boost Support

  • Tainan Mayor William Lai nominated to run island’s government
  • Appointment seen strengthening Tsai’s support among DPP base

President Tsai Ing-wen named a popular southern Taiwan mayor to lead her government, as she seeks to rebuild support ahead of next year’s local elections.

Tsai on Tuesday appointed Tainan Mayor William Lai to take over as premier, a move that had been widely expected after Lin Chuan resignation’s a day earlier. Lai will be tasked with reorganizing the cabinet after a series of bruising policy fights to push through key pieces of Tsai’s agenda.

William Lai

Photographer: Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty Images

“Lai is the right person as our focus now turns from planning to execution,” Tsai said. “As mayor, he knows how to handle public opinion and how to respond quickly.”

Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s is preparing for its first electoral test at the end of next year, when more than 20 cities and counties hold leadership elections. A cabinet reshuffle will give Tsai’s party the opportunity to put aside disputes surrounding her government’s labor and pension reforms and focus on bolstering an approval rating that has sunk below 30 percent.

“It remains to be seen whether Lai can complete the tasks Tsai has given him, as he lacks experience in central government,” said Chang Ling-chen, an emeritus professor in National Taiwan University’s political science department. “It’s questionable how much room Lai has for policy adjustments as Tsai is the decision maker.”

Continuing Agenda

Lai, 57, signaled no immediate departure from Lin’s agenda, promising to “continue strengthening Taiwan’s reforms and transformation based on the foundation built by Premier Lin.” The outgoing premier had helped secure passage of proposals limiting workweeks to six days and creating a special NT$107 billion ($3.5 billion) infrastructure budget, and slashing pension benefits for police, veterans and civil servants.

“I’ll complete the blueprint drawn by President Tsai step by step to benefit the people,” Lai said. The current cabinet was expected to resign en masse in the coming days to give Lai the freedom to assemble his own government. The benchmark Taiex closed up 0.5 percent.

Tsai said she told Lai to focus on topics including innovation, tax reform, infrastructure, long-term health care, budget efficiency and ensuring a stable power supply while transitioning away from nuclear energy. Taiwan’s economy minister stepped down last month after a blackout left 6 million households without power and questions about Tsai’s plan to phase out nuclear power.

China Tensions

Lai is a medical doctor-turned-politician who has since 2010 run Tainan, a southern stronghold for the pro-independence DPP. His popularity -- a TVBS poll conducted late last year put his approval rating at 55 percent -- has prompted local observers to mention him as a possible presidential contender.

Among Tsai’s concerns are tensions with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping over her refusal to publicly endorse the idea that Taiwan is part of China. The government in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a province, has curbed tourist trips, pushed foreign countries to deport Taiwanese criminal suspects to the mainland and blocked the island from participating in international bodies.

While Lai has recently spoken about his “affinity toward China,” his past support of independence may reassure the DPP faithful without further provoking Beijing. Relations across the Taiwan Strait are the president’s responsibility, not the premier’s.

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