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Taiwan’s leadership injury from recent failures

TAIPAI – Taiwan and its leader Tsai Ying-wen climbed high last year as the island was repelled by the coronavirus, expanded its economy and won vocal support from Washington.

President Tsai now faces a trio of failures that threaten to affect her popularity amid growing pressure from China: a crippling drought, ongoing eclipses and Taiwan’s worst jump in the Covid-19 case.

In recent days, some of the tension has eased. It’s raining again and more vaccines are on the way. Yet the merging of crises creates a rare opening for the opposition Kuomintang or the Nationalist Party, which is fighting for a return to relevance and which favors closer ties with Beijing.

Covid-19 patient in Taipei last month. There is an increase in cases in Taiwan.


Annabelle Chih / Zuma Press

Ms. Tsai, who hit the Kuomintang last year to win a second term, saw her popularity fall below 50% for the first time since her re-election in a poll led by a former member of her party.

The crises have tarnished her image as a pragmatic and capable technocrat and complicated her efforts to maintain a delicate status quo with the increasingly assertive Beijing, which has never ruled the democratic island but claims part of Chinese territory.

Although Ms. Tsai cannot run for re-election, the crises are repelling the political situation of her Democratic Progressive Party.

“Popularity and elections are not our priority at the moment. This is people’s health, “said a spokesman for Taiwan’s presidential office, adding that the administration was aware and open to criticism.

Boats to a lake in Nantou as drought hit Taiwan.


Anabel Chi / Reuters

With Kovid, the Taiwanese leader is partly a victim of his own success. More than 2½ weeks of daily triple-digit increases brought the total number of cases on the island to 10,956 with 224 deaths. That number is relatively small, but still staggering for a population that previously had less than 1,200 cases, thanks to a quick response to the initial outbreak last year.

“The current outbreak is certainly affecting the government, as people already have very high expectations,” said Ho Ming-sho, a sociology professor at the National Taiwan University, noting the island’s success in sustaining the pandemic for much of the past year.

The island lags far behind the vaccinations of other developed Asian economies, with about 2.8% of the 24 million people receiving their first shot since June 4th. This is partly due to the slow supply and the fact that many Taiwanese do not feel the urgency to get vaccinated before the new tide. The new outbreak, tracked for crew members on an incoming flight in late April, has raised fears that Taiwan’s health care system may soon be crushed.

An eclipse hit Taiwan in May.


ann wang / Reuters

On May 26, the head of Taiwan’s best medical facility, the National Taiwan University Hospital, asked for more resources on his personal Facebook account, saying the beds in the hospital’s intensive care unit were already full. The next day, the Taipei Union of Doctors warned that the island’s medical facilities had been expanded to the maximum. “If this is not a breakdown of the health system, then what is a breakdown?” The union said in a statement.

Beijing has said it is ready to provide vaccines to Taiwan, which the island’s health minister’s proposal has rejected, saying Taiwanese would not dare use them.

The Kuomintang, meanwhile, criticized the Tsai administration for requiring imported vaccines to have documentation showing they came directly from the factory, which it said discouraged companies and religious groups from donating vaccines purchased on the open market.

“Why is the government still looking for excuses for refusing vaccines and finding thousands of reasons to block multiple vaccine channels?” KMT President Johnny Chiang said last week.

A nurse administers the Covid-19 vaccine in Taipei. Taiwan lags behind other developed Asian economies in terms of vaccinations.


ann wang / Reuters

KMT said it puts people’s interests first. Fan Chow, a political commentator and author of numerous books on Taiwan-China relations, said the party appeared to be “using the pandemic to win votes in future elections”.

Mr Chiang said it was the responsibility of the opposition party to hold the government accountable.

“As a political party, our focus on saving people’s lives clearly takes precedence over political considerations,” he said in written comments sent to The Wall Street Journal.

A spokeswoman for the Tsai administration dismissed KMT’s criticism of the vaccines.

A plane carrying 1.24 million doses of vaccines from Japan landed in Taipei on Friday. Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chun said earlier in the week that a plan to deliver one million shots a week would begin after 20 million vaccines purchased from the island began arriving in late June. The Taiwanese government has also ordered 10 million domestically produced vaccines, which Ms. Cai said could be available immediately in July.


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Meanwhile, the outbreak continues to spread despite social distancing measures. Daily amounts of newly reported cases recently climbed to more than 400 after sinking to 300 earlier in the week.

Pandemic pressure is on top of other tests. Taiwan’s worst drought in half a century has gripped the island’s semiconductor industry, a major driver of economic growth, and contributed to large-scale eclipses in Taipei and other major cities.

As recent rains have eased the land – and on Friday a rainstorm turned the streets of downtown Taipei into rivers – eclipses continue to affect parts of the island.

The eclipses illustrate how the government has ignored the risks in designing Taiwan’s power system, said Hong Sun-khan, an environmentalist who has become a member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Taiwan typically relies on hydropower as a “relief jug” during a major demand for electricity, he said.

Taiwan State Power Co. blames the eclipses on human error and maintenance schedules.

“DPP has been in power for more than five years – enough time to fix things, but it hasn’t done the job,” said Ho, of Taiwan’s National University, citing the persistence of long-term management problems in state-owned enterprises.

Another example, he said, was the island’s train operator, the Taiwan Railway Administration, which is responsible for the deadliest train crash in decades, killing 50 people in April after a similar derailment in 2018 that killed 18 passengers and wounded 187.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Tsai said that “state-owned enterprises need to be reformed and are in the process of reform … People will eventually see the changes that are happening gradually.”

Although Ms. Tsai is not under pressure to be re-elected in her second term, her popularity will play a role in the August referendum, which includes voting on pork imports, which could complicate negotiations on trade deals with the United States. She described the vote as important in repelling economic coercion from China.

“As long as the problems remain unresolved, public satisfaction with the GMP will continue to decline,” said Ting Zhen-Fang, a professor of political science at Taiwan’s Cheng Kung National University.

Write to Joey Wang at joyu.wang@wsj.com

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