The Debate

Taiwan’s Newly Reshuffled Cabinet Looks a Lot Like Its Old Cabinet

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The Debate

Taiwan’s Newly Reshuffled Cabinet Looks a Lot Like Its Old Cabinet

Premier William Lai has vacated his post after the DPP’s crushing regional election defeat, but most of Taiwan’s ministers are staying on.

Taiwan’s Newly Reshuffled Cabinet Looks a Lot Like Its Old Cabinet
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Taiwan’s cabinet resigned en masse on Friday, a move meant to rejuvenate the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after its heavy losses in the November 2018 regional elections. But those hoping for drastic changes ahead of President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 re-election bid will be disappointed as the new cabinet, inaugurated on Monday, is stocked with familiar faces.

The cabinet assembled by incoming Premier Su Tseng-chang retained ministers in charge of foreign affairs, defense, the economy, and relations with China. The most notable change comes at the top where Su, who previously served as premier from 2006 to 2007, replaces the popular William Lai.

Chen Chi-mai, a former parliament member, joined as vice premier, while former Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung will serve as transportation minister.

On Friday, Su channeled Winston Churchill in acknowledging the difficult situation his party faces and promised his Cabinet would respond to and communicate with the public – a priority for a party that seems to have lost touch with the voters who swept Tsai into power three years ago.

Tsai’s cross-strait policies have enjoyed a surge of popularity following her unequivocal rejection of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal of a “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan. But the new cabinet will be charged with resuscitating the DPP’s moribund domestic agenda after voters showed their overwhelming disapproval at the ballot box last November.

Su is likely to focus on short-term policies popular among the DPP base, such as increasing wealth distribution, in an effort to win back voters repelled by what they see as a sluggish economy and stagnant wages in the three years since Tsai took Taiwan’s highest office.

Tsai, in announcing Su’s appointment on Friday, said the veteran DPP hand had the requisite experience and ability to improve public welfare, boost the economy, and defend Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty.

However, public excitement over the cabinet changes has been muted at best. Taiwan’s Chinese-language United Daily News, which aligns editorially with the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), called the new cabinet, featuring failed November candidates Su, Chen, and Lin, a “losers’ alliance.” While Su is a popular DPP figure and Chen’s public approval has spiked since his mayoral loss to KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, the new cabinet is likely to stick to the agenda of the outgoing Lai.

Much speculation has surrounded possible presidential ambitions of the popular Lai, who is seen as a favorite of the DPP’s pro-independence camp and once called himself a “political worker for Taiwanese independence.” While Lai almost certainly has lofty future political ambitions, he has given no indication that he may challenge Tsai in the upcoming 2020 campaign.

The cabinet returns Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, Mainland Affairs Council head Chen Ming-tong, Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa, Minister of Economic Affairs Shen Jong-chin, and Culture Minister Cheng Li-chiun, who had offered her resignation before Su convinced her to stay on.

Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka, another holdover from Taiwan’s previous cabinet, said on Sunday the cabinet would strive to be “in touch with the public” while improving its communication and promoting young politicians. The comments echoed Tsai’s comments following the DPP’s November defeat, when she said her party had lost touch with the youth of Taiwan.

But the new cabinet is short on youthful voices. Its average age has reached 62.26 with only Kolas and minister without portfolio Audrey Tang falling below the age of 50. It also remains male-dominated, containing just five women to 30 men.

That poses an image problem the DPP must face heading into a presidential election that could see serious challengers from outside Taiwan’s two main parties, including a potential bid by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, who is popular among young voters. Ko is slated to visit the United States in March, a trip seen as a launching pad for a 2020 presidential run.

For his part, Foreign Minister Wu has elevated his aide, 30-year-old Vincent Chao, to head the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington. The appointment has faced harsh criticism from KMT officials, who have lodged charges of nepotism.

However, Chao’s backers are coming to his defense. Wu has called Chao his “most important aide” and said his performance has earned praise from foreign representatives. Sean Bai, former senior assistant trade representative at the Singapore trade office in Taipei, echoed many of Chao’s supporters in a Taipei Times editorial, saying he “might actually be overqualified for the job.”

Taiwan’s new cabinet must now prove that, along with supporting young politicians, it can also win back the hearts and minds of young voters.