Does the Public Still Trust the Tsai Administration?

Written by Timothy S. Rich and Kole Ingram.

Image credit: 10.25 總統接見美國羅省中華會館回國訪問團 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

To what extent does the Taiwanese public trust the Tsai Ing-wen administration? Furthermore, does trust in the administration’s COVID policy fare better than generalized trust?

After decisive electoral victories in  2016 and 2020, Tsai maintained high approval domestically and internationally due to the administration’s response to the pandemic, notoriety that led to Tsai’s inclusion on the Financial Times’ list of most influential women of 2020. However, public approval declined as COVID cases rose in 2022, particularly since early April, when the relaxing of the stringent border policy had, up to that point, been the thing preventing a rapid increase. The country has confirmed over 7 million cases and almost 12,000 deaths, the majority within the last six months.

This recent surge has forced the Tsai administration to double down on pre-existing policies when much of the globe is seeing progress in dealing with the virus. Only within the past few months has the Tsai administration slowly lifted these preventative measures, including finally lifting tourist restrictions in October. Yet, the number of cases remains high in the country. This has likely contributed to President Tsai now facing lower approval ratings, including among young voters and could serve the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) in upcoming elections.

Such a decline in public approval is not uncommon in presidential terms, especially among incumbents in their last term. Nevertheless, Tsai’s satisfaction ratings in 2022 have generally fared better than one may have expected leading into local elections. Meanwhile, evidence elsewhere (see here, here and here) shows not only initial greater public support for leaders in the early days of the pandemic. Still, it suggests how the pandemic may have increased trust in institutions in general. For example, data from the National Chengchi University’s Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study in September 2020 showed broad satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic, with 90.95% of respondents overall, including 98.09% of DPP supporters and 79.12% of KMT supporters, satisfied. Likewise, satisfaction with these policies with ratings of Tsai’s overall leadership. Yet, less attention has been placed on how initial support for COVID policies would be expected to decline over time, not only from public fatigue with pandemic policy restrictions but also as the next election cycle nears and opposition parties would potentially harness changing public tolerance for electoral gain.

Admittedly, trust in the Tsai administration is not simply a function of COVID policy but an aggregate measure of trust across domestic and international issues. For example, under Tsai’s leadership, Taiwan became the first country in the region to legalize same-sex marriage, and the administration has tackled progressive labour reform and promoted languages other than Mandarin. That Tsai’s Vice President William Lai, long associated with Taiwanese independence sentiment despite appearing to soften this stance, will likely be the DPP’s presidential candidate in 2024. These domestic factors likely influence trust, deviating across traditional partisan lines. Regarding foreign relations, the Tsai administration’s New Southbound Policy sought to diminish trade dependency with China by enhancing economic ties in Southeast Asia and Oceania, where chillier cross-strait relations have led to questions about China’s plans to invade and the Tsai administration’s defence strategies. As expected, previous works (see here and here) find factors such as cross-strait relations, economic development and livelihood issues influencing satisfaction with Tsai and clear partisan distinctions on these issues.

 To understand Taiwanese trust in the current administration, we surveyed 867 respondents on September 19-26 via a web survey conducted by Macromill Embrain and using quota sampling for age, gender, and region. After a series of demographic questions, we randomly assigned respondents to one of two statements to evaluate on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree), as this would allow us to identify generalized trust in the Tsai administration versus any lingering bump due to COVID-related policies. The experimental versions were:

Version 1 (V1): I trust President Tsai’s administration

Version 2 (V2): I trust President Tsai’s administration regarding COVID-19 policies in Taiwan

The figure below presents the results, recording for visual clarity to disagree, neither, and agree, showing the overall results and broken down among supporters of the DPP, KMT, and TPP. Overall, more respondents claimed to disagree with the statement and thus not trust the administration, with this distrust higher in Version 1 (49.31% vs 26.96% agreeing) but still evident in Version 2 emphasizing COVID policy (44.11% vs 33.48% agreeing). Such distrust should be a concern, especially leading into local elections. As expected, the results essentially divide into party lines, with over eighty per cent of DPP supporters claiming to trust the administration in both versions (Version 1: 84.57%, Version 2: 86.31%), compared to less than fifteen per cent of KMT and TPP supporters. Moreover, we see higher support for the COVID version across all groups, with a 4.74% increase among DPP supporters, compared to 7.99% and 9.07% among KMT and TPP supporters, respectively. Such findings suggest a continued acknowledgement of the initial bump in institutional trust associated with broadly supported COVID policies in the early stages of the pandemic. In addition, regression analysis finds that trust levels remained higher for the COVID version after controlling for demographic factors (age, gender, income, education), partisan factors (ideology and party identification), and preference for Taiwan’s future status (unification to independence).

To what extent trust in the administration’s COVID policies will continue to hover over-generalized trust is unclear, especially so soon after the country has dropped additional restrictions, including those on tourists. For Tsai and the DPP, the declining trust may serve as a wake-up call, as it may suggest a declining ability to appeal to uncommitted voters and that the goodwill initially associated with the administration’s COVID policies has dissipated. However, one should view these survey results with caution when attempting to make links to November’s elections, taking into consideration factors such as the continued unpopularity of the KMT and that measuring trust here may simply be picking up partisan preferences and the effects of partisan media echo chambers.  

Timothy S Rich is a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL).

Kole Ingram is an honours undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University. He is majoring in Political Science and Mathematics.

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