July 13, 2021

Asia

TAIWAN: Will vaccine problems weaken support for Tsai and the DPP?

BY Gabriel Wildau

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( 5 mins)
  • A shortage of vaccines amid a recent Coviid-19 outbreak presents a political challenge to President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
  • In August, four ballot referenda will be viewed as a proxy for the public’s view of DPP rule and the strength of the opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT) ahead of nationwide local elections next year.
  • With public opinion shifting decisively in an anti-mainland direction, cross-strait relations are no longer the main political cleavage, and the KMT is focusing its criticism on domestic issues.

Outbreak is fading, but the political impact may persist

After more than a year in which Taiwan was among the world’s most effective regions at containing Covid-19, cases spiked in May. The outbreak led to criticism of Tsai and her administration for failing to secure adequate vaccine supplies. Taiwan’s outbreak is now fading, with daily new cases at just 1.3 per day on 11 July on a seven-day rolling average basis, down from a peak of 25 in late May. Last week, the Central Epidemic Command Center said that movie theaters, museums, gyms, golf courses, and national parks would reopen on 13 July. Restaurants can open at reduced capacity, but bars and swimming pools will remain closed, and mask-wearing is still required through at least 26 July. As previously discussed, lockdown measures have not affected semiconductor production. The key question now is whether criticisms of Tsai and the DPP will affect the outcome of nationwide local elections next year and the national election in 2024.

The opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT) has viewed the outbreak and vaccine shortage as an opening against Tsai and Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, a possible candidate for Taipei mayor. The criticisms focus on the government’s decision not to impose full lockdown – the government opted for level 3, not level 4 – and Tsai’s unmet promises that Taiwan would quickly have domestically-produced vaccines to distribute. Online misinformation has stoked fears about the safety of Astra Zeneca vaccines.

Even before the outbreak, authorities faced criticism for declining to follow Western countries in easing quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers. Taiwan still requires two weeks of quarantine on arrival. This strict requirement is leading to complaints by both foreign and domestic businesspeople and anecdotal reports of foreigners and even domestic businesspeople leaving. For a small island like Taiwan, openness to travel is arguably more important than for larger economies like mainland China or Japan.

The DPP and its supporters have alleged that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is secretly orchestrating these attacks. To be sure, mainland state media have relished the opportunity to criticize Tsai, and covert mainland propaganda is almost certainly at work in Taiwan to some extent. Even so, public and media criticism largely reflect genuine public sentiment that cannot be attributed primarily to mainland interference. Similarly, KMT politicians are not primarily acting on Beijing’s instructions.

Vaccine politics

Taiwan had administered 3.42mn vaccine doses through 11 July, with 14.4% of the population receiving one dose and a further 0.3% fully vaccinated. In recent weeks, the vaccine shortage has eased due to the US donation of 2.5mn Moderna doses and Japan’s donation of 1.24mn Astra Zeneca doses. Daily vaccinations have risen sharply this month, reaching around 150,000 on 11 July on a seven-day rolling average basis, up from 42,000 on 30 June. The island’s two most important technology companies, Foxconn and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp, announced on 12 July that they had reached a deal for each company to purchase 5mn BioNTech doses through the German company’s Greater China sales agent, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical. The first batch will arrive in late September at the earliest.

The BioNTech negotiations were highly politicized and generated intense media focus. Chen alleged that Beijing had interfered to force Taiwan to place orders through Fosun rather than negotiating directly with BioNTech. The two companies received Taipei’s formal permission to negotiate the deal and will donate the vaccines to the government free of charge. With Tsai facing criticism for the vaccine shortage, the government’s decision to deputize the two companies – both of which have extensive operations on the mainland and strong relations with Beijing – probably reflected a judgment that they could more easily secure a deal. Though delayed, the eventual rollout of domestically produced vaccines may also help Tsai’s popularity to rebound.

Rising polarization

The outbreak and vaccine shortage have exacerbated existing trends towards political polarization in Taiwan, already visible in the run-up to last year’s presidential election. But with public opinion moving decisively in an anti-mainland direction and the sense of a distinct Taiwanese national identity increasingly entrenched, cross-strait relations are no longer the dominant cleavage, and both parties are focused primarily on domestic issues.

In August, Taiwan will vote on four referenda that will be viewed as a proxy for the public’s view of DPP rule ahead of next year’s elections. None of the four is related to China policy. One concerns the DPP’s decision to cancel the longstanding ban on imports of American pork containing the additive ractopamine. Lifting the ban was a concession to Washington intended to jumpstart trade talks. KMT, which in 2012 allowed US beef despite DPP protests, has now switched sides and is rallying the public to re-impose the pork ban.

A second referendum concerns the construction of a liquid natural gas terminal on the Datan Algal Reef. Energy politics illustrates the trend of increasing factionalism within the two parties. The DPP leadership supports the project but faces opposition from some traditionally DPP-friendly conservationists. On the KMT side, intra-party disputes pit the party’s aging leadership against younger members who want to shift the party’s platform to appeal to younger voters. Though China’s leaders would still prefer the KMT, they are under no illusion that a shift to KMIT rule would lead to a fundamental change in cross-strait relations.

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