Parliamentary Speaker Su Jia-chyuan
A Neutral Mediator?
Majority control of Taiwan’s Legislature changed for the first time this year with the victory of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January, opening the door to sweeping reform. Newly elected Speaker Su Jia-chyuan, a veteran DPP politician, has pledged to end the practice of closed-door negotiations.
A Neutral Mediator?By Rebecca Lin, Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 594 )
It is lunchtime, and section chiefs from the various departments in the Legislative Yuan rush to the banquet room on the second floor, lunchboxes in their hands. After sitting down around a large round table, they dig into their meals while discussing personnel matters and working hours with their new boss, Su Jia-chyuan.
Su has name tags with accompanying photographs placed on the table in front of him. He looks down at the list, reads the respective name to himself once, then lifts his head to match the face to one of the names.
Aside from the lunchbox meetings with lower-level supervisors, Su invites top administrators each Wednesday to weekly meetings that serve as a communication platform for discussing the administrative affairs of the Legislative Yuan. Both mechanisms are entirely new experiences for Legislative Yuan employees.
With the beginning of the new parliamentary session in February, the decades-long majority control of the Legislature by the Kuomintang (KMT) came to an end. Su, a member of the DPP, was elected to the top post, taking over from outgoing speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT, who had brandished the gavel with uncontested authority for 17 years. Su is the first parliamentary speaker pledging to conduct debates and proceedings in a non-partisan "neutral" manner.
"The new Legislature will have no black box [dealings], no closed-door [negotiations among party caucuses]," Su has vowed publicly. Live broadcasts from plenary debates and committee meetings at the Legislative Yuan will be launched in April. Transcripts from negotiations between the party caucuses will be published online. In the future, citizens may directly submit bills online to the Legislative Yuan for review without having to go through a lawmaker, provided they have collected enough signatures.
In order to make a convincing "neutral" speaker, Su declared when taking office that he would quit all his positions within the DPP.
Former lawmaker Tsai Huang-lang, who now holds a paid consultant position in the Legislative Yuan, notes that Su's mission is to improve the Legislature’s image and promote reform in line with the electorate's expectations. This means ending what Tsai called Wang's"practice of using personal connections and financial interests for negotiating deals among the party caucuses."
However, Su's pledge to play the role of a "non-partisan" speaker is triggering doubts and misgivings within the DPP as well as outside of the party. DPP lawmaker Lee Ying-yuan says that, without any party post, Su "will not be part of the party's decision-making core; he won't be able to act as a leader and broker."
What Lee avoids mentioning is the concern by some that, as a non-partisan speaker, Su might become a mere figurehead without any real power.
"Isn't it highly contradictory if he needs to implement what [DPP Chairwoman and President-elect] Tsai Ing-wen wants but also has to remain neutral?" says veteran KMT lawmaker Lai Shyh-bao. He notes that Su has made carping comments about a draft bill on the investigation of KMT party assets and has interfered in DPP-KMT competition. Lai feels that Su's pledges of remaining neutral therefore have little credibility.
Why does Su have such a close relationship with President-elect Tsai? Is he too close to be able to perform as a non-partisan speaker, as many inside and outside the DPP fear?
Su served as Tsai's running mate in the 2012 presidential election, which the KMT won in a landslide. Su loyally stayed at her side throughout these difficult times, helping lead the DPP toward its triumphant return to power this year. "He is my most trusted colleague," is how Tsai habitually describes Su.
"Su has been at Tsai's side throughout this entire struggle, from when she took over as party chairperson to the ensuing election campaigns when the DPP gradually regained its strength, until reaching its current peak," observes Lee.
The work relationship between Tsai and Su began to develop during the second term of the Chen Shui-bian administration, when Tsai served as vice premier and Su headed the Council of Agriculture. Su has publicly stated that he "had to report to her on all agriculture-related affairs and strategies." The pair, both born in 1956, were in a boss-subordinate relationship at the time.
After losing government control in the 2008 presidential election, the DPP hit rock bottom, and Tsai took over as chairperson to rebuild the devastated party. She waited for three months before Su returned to take over as head of the DPP Campaign Committee and as secretary-general.
Tsai delegated the coordination of DPP internal affairs to Su who had rich experience both as local government leader and as a Cabinet minister. "Su has local government coordination and organizing skills, as well as the vision and training of a central government official. He has also participated in strategic planning and coordination at party headquarters," explains DPP Deputy Secretary General Hung Yao-fu, who began to build up the DPP from the grassroots alongside Su from 2008.
Hung observes that Su is familiar with the trickiness of local politics. Moreover, he was able to mobilize people to push forward when the DPP's fortunes looked bad following the election defeat. "Not many people dared meet with us back then. But he kept looking for talent," recalls Hung.
In 2010, Su was drafted by the DPP to run in the Taichung mayoral election against the hugely popular incumbent Jason Hu from the KMT. Within just five months, Su narrowed Hu's massive opinion poll lead of up to 30 percent into a neck-and-neck race. Eventually Su lost by a margin of 30,000 votes, or less than 2.5 percent of votes cast.
It was the first mayoral election since Taichung City and rural Taichung County had been merged into Greater Taichung. Su beat Hu by a wide margin in former Taichung County constituencies where he had become a familiar face during his time as Council of Agriculture minister.
Su is good at making things work with few resources and figuring out strategies to achieve certain goals. As head of the DPP's Campaign Committee, Su had to deescalate factional struggles over candidate nominations both in the run-up to the nine-in-one municipal elections in 2014 as well as the presidential and legislative elections earlier this year.
He gave public opinion rankings to all participants in the party primaries for an objective assessment of their prospects, and had party heavyweights and Tsai talk to weaker candidates to persuade them to drop out of the race. Author and playwright Neil Peng, who originally ran for the DPP-friendly New Power Party, also eventually dropped out of the race to prevent splitting the anti-KMT vote in New Taipei City's first district. As a result, the DPP's Lu Sun-ling, one of the youngest candidates, won the district ousting longtime KMT lawmaker Wu Yu-sheng.
Across party lines, Su is not only known for his ability to communicate, negotiate and mediate, but also for his flexibility.
A former aide who worked with Su at the Ministry of the Interior and the Council of Agriculture observes that Su approaches people without hesitation, regardless of whether he knows them, always extending his hand for a handshake. If his counterpart shakes his head in dissent and refuses to shake hands, Su will instead clinch his left fist and cover it with the right hand in front of his chest in a ritual show of respect. "His body language gives people the feeling that he has noticed you and that he respects you," the aide says.
Tsai, however, needs to rely on Su first of all for his "organizational capacity." In terms of mobilizing voters, the DPP has always lagged far behind the KMT with its mass membership and dense network of grassroots organizations. Yet after the election defeat in 2012, Su and his deputy Hung turned to Taiwan’s increasingly vocal civil society forces to build a broader support base for the DPP.
In 2013, they founded the Friends of Little Ing, as the DPP chairperson is affectionately called by her supporters, and invited people from all walks of life to participate in the group. At the same time, they registered themselves as civic groups with local governments, serving the public interest with activities such as organizing blood donation and beach-cleaning drives.
Within just two years the Friends of Little Ing blossomed into an island-wide network. Even traditional KMT strongholds such as rural Nantou and Miaoli counties became crucial in launching supporters' groups for subsequent DPP election campaigns.
Hung recalls how these efforts paid off ahead of the 2016 presidential and legislative elections, "Within two months, we established nearly 3,000 supporters' groups with the help of backers from various industries." Not only did the Friends of Little Ing hand out "consultant certificates," recruiting almost 100,000 "consultants" from many different backgrounds, they even set up a Line group that enabled all supporters to closely follow Tsai’s every move.
This new mode of organizing and mobilizing supporters became a crucial factor behind the DPP's election success. One of Su's strengths is his consideration for relationships and his acknowledgement of other people's feelings in his organizational work.
However, Su’s ability to build and manage interpersonal networks has also made him vulnerable to allegations of influence peddling, though such controversy has always surrounded Su's private sphere and not his conduct in office. Rumors that he recommended his wife and other qualified relatives for open civil service positions have never ceased.
Another controversy tarnished Su’s image right during the 2012 presidential campaign. "Back then he suffered a great deal of damage," Lee recalls. At the time, KMT lawmaker Chiu Yi accused Su of breaking the law by building two farmhouses on agricultural land in Pingtung County even though he was not earning a living as a farmer. The building permits had been issued when Su served as the county's commissioner. Since Su failed to immediately address the allegations, the scandal kept escalating, and many inside and outside the party accused him of shirking responsibility.
"The farmhouses pertained to his family and his children. People have feelings, we're only human," notes legislative consultant Tsai in explaining Su's hesitation in dealing with the scandal. Eventually Su made great efforts to clarify his role. But he was still forced to explain the entire affair again in a television program before last year's elections in a bid to clear his name.
Balance of Power
Like his predecessor Wang, the flexible, communicative Su readily adjusts his stance when coordinating and negotiating. As Su's declared goal of "legislative reform" is still shrouded in uncertainty, some are asking whether Su, now that he yields great power in the Legislature, might fall into the ‘Wang Jin-Pyng trap'?
"Putting it simply, Wang always wants to be seen as the good guy. But Su has a very strict judgment as to what is right and wrong," says Tsai Huang-lang, dismissing such concerns.
In the past, the Legislature was most tarnished by tales of money games and give-and-take deal-making that took place under the table. Novice speaker Su now faces the challenge of performing his duties in a non-partisan manner by treating all party caucuses fairly while also toeing the party line and heeding incoming President Tsai's wishes.
One high-ranking DPP official points out that Su deftly employed the party machinery when the DPP was in a sorry state, coordinating differing positions in the absence of any resources. "He will only grow stronger in the future because he will have many more resources at his disposal," the official predicts.
The KMT, now the major opposition party, is not at all confident that the new Speaker will carry out effective leadership. "He will always play by the rules, but this won't leave any room for flexibility, for bending the rules to accommodate [different positions]," says KMT lawmaker Lai, adding, "We are talking about the Legislative Yuan here."
How can Su convince the doubters that he is on the right track with his demand for open, more professional parliamentary proceedings and an end to "money games"? It appears that under Su's leadership we might see a new Legislature that starkly differs from that of the Wang era.
Su does not want to talk much right now about the prospects of legislative reform after the new DPP administration has taken power. "Let's wait a few more months, let's wait until we have some achievements to show; then we will report to everyone,” notes one of Su’s aides in reiterating the "standard" answer that the media have been hearing over and over again.
Having spent 30 years in politics, Su prides himself on the fact that he is able to do a good job in any political office. But he admits that "it will take some time" to grow into the position of parliamentary speaker, a role that was never part of his career plan.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz