Liu Chao-shiuan’s surprise announcement ended weeks of speculation about the political fallout of Typhoon Morakot, which was the worst to hit Taiwan in half a century and killed over 600 people.
“Someone has to take political responsibility,” Liu said at a hastily called press conference.
Later Monday, a spokesman for President Ma Ying-jeou said the chief secretary of Taiwan’s ruling party had been named as the new premier.
“The president decided to appoint Wu Den-yih, the secretary general of the Kuomintang party, as the new premier,” Wang Yu-chi told reporters.
Liu’s resignation comes after severe public criticism of the way the government tackled the typhoon. Anger over the government’s response to the crisis has proved its toughest challenge since taking power 15 months ago.
President Ma in particular has been under intense pressure, and it was expected that high-ranking members of his cabinet would have to resign.
Ma’s approval rating fell to a record low of 16 percent in a poll conducted by the TVBS news channel in mid-August. This compares with a 41-percent approval rating in June 2008, one month after he was sworn in.
“Liu’s resignation may meet a widespread demand among the public, but at the same time this surprise move indicates the pressure on Ma has been huge,” said Lo Chih-cheng, a political scientist at Taipei’s Soochow University.
Ma’s political fortunes have a direct bearing on relations with China, as he was voted to power on a promise to improve relations with the giant across the Taiwan Straits.
The cabinet will all formally resign on Thursday in a procedural move to pave the way for a reshuffle, Liu told reporters.
“I have finished my mission at this stage,” said Liu, a 66-year-old former academic and transport minister, known for his mild professorial manner.
“Up to 90 percent of those affected by the typhoon have received relief payments and 92 percent of the homeless have been allowed into military barracks or other official facilities,” he said.
Typhoon Morakot hit the island in early August, bringing powerful winds and torrential rain that left at least 614 people dead and 75 missing, according to the most recent figures from the National Fire Agency.
“I should have done better,” Liu said in a characteristic soft-spoken voice.
Taiwan’s new premier, 61-year-old Wu, is a political veteran respected for his eloquence.
“If Taipei is the brain of Taiwan, then Kaohsiung is its heart,” he told Businessweek while mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city, in the 1990s.
Despite his talent for soundbites, Wu’s time as Kaohsiung mayor got lacklustre marks, and he was criticised for not doing enough to make it a more liveable city.
A more general problem is Wu’s lack of experience in finance and economy, a shortcoming he shares with the new Vice Premier Eric Chu, Lo of Soochow University argued.
“Since the new cabinet will not be economy-oriented, I doubt if it has the capacity to lead Taiwan through the crisis,” he said.
Taiwan’s export-dependent economy suffered a record 10.24 percent economic contraction in the first quarter, but the decline narrowed to 7.54 percent in the second quarter. –AFP