Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen names new premier to shore up support

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Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has chosen former vice-president Chen Chien-jen as her new premier, handing the soft-spoken epidemiologist responsibility for tackling an economic downturn amid sliding support for the ruling Democratic Progressive party.

Chen’s appointment was the first move in a cabinet reshuffle that will be announced in full on Friday and is intended to demonstrate the DPP is responding to the drubbing it suffered in local elections in November.

The DPP is seeking to stem falling support ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next January. Opinion polls since November show greater dissatisfaction with both Tsai and Su Tseng-chang, the previously popular outgoing premier.

Whether the DPP remains in power next year could be a decisive factor in China’s next moves towards Taiwan as Beijing ratchets up military pressure on the island it claims as its own.

Chen is respected for Taiwan’s successful early containment of the Covid-19 pandemic, which he oversaw while serving as vice-president until May 2020. He was also Taiwan’s health minister during the 2003 Sars epidemic.

Senior DPP officials also believe his low political profile makes him more palatable to the public after many voters complained the party’s November campaign focused too heavily on Taiwanese nationalist ideology and failed to address economic issues.

DPP officials said young voters who originally leaned towards the party were alienated by being attacked on social media by people involved in the campaign for not being patriotic or anti-China enough.

A senior official in Tsai’s administration said the party also underestimated the fatigue of working-age, middle-class voters at pandemic control measures the government had been slow to lift. Such voters also felt disadvantaged at not receiving pandemic-specific subsidies given to lower-income households.

“The former VP’s credentials as the key person helping defeat Sars and getting us ready to manage this pandemic well are beyond question, and people have a lot of goodwill towards him because of that,” the official said.

Chen is also seen as a lot less tainted by low politics than many other DPP politicians. In 2021, he returned to work at Academia Sinica, the country’s top research institution, after Tsai picked Lai Ching-te, a rival with more pronounced support for Taiwanese independence, as running mate for her second term.

The new premier joined the DPP only last year.

Chen, a devout Catholic, was sent by Tsai to represent her at the funeral of former Pope Benedict this month.

The government forecasts Taiwan’s economy will grow 2.75 per cent this year, down from 3.1 per cent in 2022 and 5.9 per cent in 2021, as a semiconductor export boom fizzles out.

Apart from managing that slowdown, Chen’s cabinet will have to implement ambitious defence reforms including an extension of conscription from four months to one year. When Tsai announces the rest of the new cabinet on Friday, the spotlight will be on her choice for defence minister.

“Chen Chien-jen is Mr Nice Guy,” said Annie Tsai, a 50-year-old librarian who voted for a KMT candidate in the November elections. “We have to see if he has what it takes to run the cabinet, but we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

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