Taiwan Cabinet Reshuffle Sets the Stage for 2024 Presidential Elections
The Tsai administration reshuffled the cabinet over the Lunar New Year. Reports in previous weeks had indicated that Premier Su Tseng-chang and his cabinet would be resigning to make way for the reshuffle. After much speculation, the reshuffle eventually took place after the end of the legislative session.
The cabinet changes also followed the victory of Vice President William Lai in the race for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chair earlier in January. As the DPP’s chair is usually the party’s presidential candidate and Lai ran unopposed, this means it is probable that Lai will be the DPP’s presidential candidate in the 2024 elections. President Tsai Ing-wen was previously chair of the party; per longstanding tradition, she resigned to take responsibility for the DPP’s losses in November’s local elections last year.
At one point, it was thought that former Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan might challenge Lai for the DPP’s presidential candidate. But Cheng’s position was weakened after a plagiarism scandal that resulted in the invalidation of his master’s degree, one of many Taiwanese politicians whose education credentials were invalidated over plagiarism during the last election cycle. Likewise, Cheng’s successors were unable to hold onto Taoyuan after his term ended, further weakening his position.
The cabinet reshuffle probably reflects factional contestation within the DPP to some extent. The new premier will be former Vice President Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist by training, who led Taiwan’s response to SARS as minister of health under Chen Shui-bian’s administration. Chen Chien-jen was not a member of the DPP when he served as vice president under Tsai, but he joined the party in the lead-up to the local elections last year. It was then speculated that he might take up the position of health minister to replace Chen Shih-chung, the leader of Taiwan’s response to COVID-19, the DPP’s candidate in the Taipei mayor race. Like Chen Chien-jen, Chen Shih-chung was also not a member of the DPP before he was tapped to run for office. Recruiting party outsiders to run for office is a common feature of Taiwanese politics for both major parties.
There is speculation that Tsai would have preferred Chen Chien-jen, Cheng Wen-tsan, or former Taichung mayor Lin Chia-lung over Lai as the DPP’s 2024 presidential candidate. Though Lai could have positioned himself as a natural successor to Tsai, he instead challenged her for the DPP’s 2020 presidential nomination – likely fearing that he would not be able to overcome a future challenge from Cheng. Since then, Tsai seems to distrust Lai politically.
The resignation of Su Tseng-chang as premier may be the swansong for the DPP heavyweight. A stalwart of the party going back to its origins in the democracy movement, Su’s political career dates back to serving as one of the defense lawyers for the “Kaohsiung Eight” in 1980. By the time of the Chen Shui-bian administration in the early 2000s, Su was already one of the DPP’s major figures.
Su’s tenure as premier – the longest term since Taiwan’s democratization – was highly successful. By contrast, Su has not fared as well in his electoral forays in the past decade, such as his 2016 run for New Taipei mayor. Even so, Su may continue to be a powerful factional voice in the DPP.
Otherwise, despite his plagiarism scandal, Cheng Wen-tsan became the deputy premier in the new cabinet, and will continue to play a significant role in the DPP. Cheng may still be being groomed for higher office by the DPP, as the invalidation of his master’s degree was not widely reported on compared to other plagiarism scandals from the last election.
Indeed, the new cabinet contains a number of familiar faces. The cabinet reshuffle is intended to signal to the public that the DPP hopes to turn over a new leaf after the defeats it suffered in November’s elections, ahead of presidential elections next year. The DPP thus claims that the reshuffle shows a “new mindset.” But the KMT has hit out at the reshuffle as “insignificant,” because of the many returning faces, stating that it is a cabinet of “failed candidates” and “exists to serve only the will of President Tsai Ing-wen.”
The retention of many previous ministers shows continuity in foreign policy, cross-strait relations, and economic policy. Although there were rumors that Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu might be replaced by Taiwan’s representative to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim, both will remain in their posts. Reports indicate that Hsiao will retain her position to reassure the U.S. about Lai’s future run, in light of fears that Lai could be provocatively pro-independence based on past comments when he served as Tainan’s mayor.
Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng and Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chiu Tai-san, too, will stay in their positions, though there will be some reshuffling of positions at the Straits Exchange Foundation, the semi-official body through which the government conducts some business relations with China.
Moreover, Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua, Minister of Labor Hsu Ming-chun, Financial Supervisory Commission chair Huang Tien-mu, and National Development Council Minister Kung Ming-hsin will retain their posts, while former deputy Minister of Finance Chuang Tsui-yun will become the new minister of finance. This indicates further continuity with the previous government, even though the DPP is thought to have been punished by the voter electorate because of dissatisfaction over sluggish economic growth. Tsai has emphasized that one of the significant tasks of the new cabinet will be to fight inflation and stimulate post-COVID recovery.
Otherwise, Audrey Tang will stay on as digital minister, presiding over the newly formed Ministry of Digital Affairs as the public face of Taiwan’s “digital democracy.” Icyang Parod will continue as minister of the Council of Indigenous Affairs, and Tsai Ching-hsiang will retain his position as minister of justice.
Former Keelung mayor Lin Yu-chang, another rising voice from the younger generation of the DPP, has been named minister of the interior. This may be with the aim of elevating his public profile in the future. Though not a member of the cabinet, Lin Chia-lung, the former Taichung mayor and minister of transportation and communications, will become secretary-general of the Presidential Office, which may also keep him in the limelight.
More controversial has been the appointment of former deputy mayor of Kaohsiung Shih Che as minister of culture. Shih was accused of an extramarital affair in 2008 and become embroiled in scandal over the 2015 firing of Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts director Beatrice Hsieh, a well-known writer. Shih is known for placing great importance on Taiwanese cultural identity; as a result, his appointment has drawn criticisms from pan-Blue members of the arts establishment who emphasize Chinese culture.
It remains to be seen if the public views the cabinet reshuffle as a sign of contrition from the DPP or more of the same. The reshuffle takes place going into Tsai’s last year as president. Tsai’s position in the party was weakened after the DPP’s losses in the November elections, and her resignation created a power vacuum that Lai could occupy. Tsai’s ability to influence the DPP’s choice of the next presidential candidate and its legislative slate would have been stronger otherwise.
Tsai is likely hoping to avoid a lame-duck period over the next year, in which her ability to influence politics is increasingly limited. As such, the fact that the new cabinet contains a number of familiar faces – including individuals highly trusted by Tsai – can be seen as an attempt to consolidate power. But all of Tsai’s predecessors as democratically elected presidents of Taiwan – Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Ma Ying-jeou – have continued to be highly active figures in public life, and have commanded significant standing in their parties even after their presidencies ended. It is probable that this will also be the case with Tsai.