Four months have already passed since President Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20th. In the past few weeks, there has been an outpouring of public opinion polls released by various organizations in Taiwan measuring Tsai’s domestic approval rating. Some institutions are supportive of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), while others back the Kuomingtang (KMT); consequently, the polling results appear vastly different. Polling results from pro- KMT organizations tend to show lower support for Tsai than polls conducted by pro-DPP ones—by as much as 10 points. The gap reveals an “institutional bias” in public opinion within Taiwan.
An earlier poll by the pro-DPP Taiwan Thinktank (台灣智庫) showed that Tsai has an approval rating of 48.5 percent , while two consecutive Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意基金會) polls indicated her approval rating were 52.3 percent and 44.7 percent respectively . Similarly, Taiwan Style Foundation’s (台灣世代智庫) two polls at different times also found that Tsai’s approval lies between 53 percent and 49 percent . The average is 49.5 percent approval of Tsai’s first four months’ performance as the new President of Taiwan.
In contrast, polls released by pro-KMT media outlets such as TVBS, China Times, and United Daily showed Tsai’s approval rating to be 39 percent, 41.4 percent and 42 percent respectively, for an average of 40.7 percent. The gap between the polling results conducted by organizations partial to either side of the political spectrum is close to 10 percent. Yet, in both sets of polls, President Tsai’s approval rating has been steadily falling since her inauguration, indicating the end of her honeymoon with public opinion.
Despite the trend of a falling approval rating, the polls also show that Tsai still enjoys a relatively comfortable rating on public confidence and trust, ranging from 60 percent to 48 percent. Tsai received higher assessments (50-60 percent) from respondents on questions related to her personal character as a national leader. The responses seem to indicate that respondents believe that she is a leader with integrity; is reliable, with the determination and ability to engage in domestic reforms; is capable of protecting Taiwan’s national interests in handling cross-Strait relations, and is good at communicating with the public. At the same time, Tsai is also criticized by more than half of the respondents for “not being bold enough” and “not good at choosing the right people for the government”.
Inferring from the data, the first lesson from the public seems to be that they hold high hopes and expectations of Tsai, but at present, the public is anxious and even somewhat impatient, and expecting immediate performance and policy results from her government. The polls also suggest that Tsai is trusted by the electorate because she is seen as possessing many good leadership qualities, although they expect her to be more ambitious and aggressive. At the same time, she is criticized for her perceived failure in not using more capable and suitable talents to fill high-level positions in the Executive Yuan.
A closer look at the questions used by the various polls show that the two sides of the political spectrum have very different vantage points on public policy issues. In general, pro-DPP pollsters tend to ask more diverse questions that cover a wider range of subjects in their surveys, such as pension reform, labor rights, transitional justice, and judicial reform. The result may be interpreted as being more instructive, in terms of how the public thinks of President Tsai and her government’s policies. Overall, participants in the pro-green polls gave positive responses and support the new, reform-oriented policies and government intentions.
As one example, even after the 9/3 anti-pension reform rally organized by retired civil servants, public school teachers, and military veterans, the most recent poll by Taiwan Style Foundation still found that as high as 80.8 percent among those polled supported the government’s plans to push for pension reform . In that poll result, only 9.2 percent said they were against such a reform initiative. Therefore, President Tsai and her cabinet may have more support among the general public for reforms despite demonstrations.
On the other hand, polls designed by pro-KMT media outlets tend to focus on more controversial issues such as labor strikes, the Tsai administration’s efforts to repatriate KMT party assets, and a formula to deal with cross-Strait relations. A China Times survey goes further to single out the four controversial and least approved-of ministers in the cabinet; they are the ministers of national defense, labor affairs, transportation and communication, and economic affairs. Their disapproval ratings are above 50 percent. The Tsai administration should take note of the above disapproval ratings but be mindful of potential bias in the polling.
President Tsai must be mindful to draw the right lessons from these polls and act accordingly. In particular, she will have to learn from the pro-green polls to further deepen the support from her existing constituency by being more proactive on many reform agenda items and policies. As for pro-blue polls, her team must wisely manage the possible political ramifications if they do not issue timely, necessary, and clear explanations for the actions that have elicited the unfavorable public responses.
The main point: President Tsai must be mindful to draw the right lessons from recent public opinion polls. In particular, she has to act on pro-green polls to shore up support from her existing constituency, and respond to pro-blue polls to manage the possible political ramifications.