A “Green” Legislature
Is Reform Really in Store?
For the first time in Taiwan’s history, the country’s legislature will not be controlled by KMT-led “pan-blue” forces. People will be watching to see if the change in power will unleash reforms and lead to an era of greater efficiency and less partisanship.
Is Reform Really in Store?By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 590 )
Taiwan’s national elections on Jan. 16 ushered in a profound change in the country’s political landscape. Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became the first woman to be elected president in the country, and her victory represented the third change in power since Taiwan’s president was first popularly elected in 1996.
At the same time, voters gave the DPP an absolute majority in Taiwan’s legislative body, the Legislative Yuan, for the first time in history.
For the Kuomintang (KMT), it was its worst ever defeat in legislative polls. The party had ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for more than four decades after moving the Republic of China government to the island in 1949 and more recently had maintained control of the Legislature either with an absolute majority or in coalitions with other “pan-blue” (pro-KMT) parties. Its defeat signaled the high expectations voters have for the new lawmaking body.
According to CommonWealth Magazine’s 2016 State of the Nation Survey, conducted in late 2015, 89 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the Legislative Yuan and cited “transparency of consultations,” “procedural efficiency,” and “legislator conduct” as the three areas most in need of reform. Also, “political infighting” was identified as the second biggest threat facing Taiwanese society, behind only “a weak economy.”
A ‘New Yellow’ and New Faces
On Jan. 16, voters used their ballots to reshuffle the deck, spawning the birth of a “New Legislature.” They ended the pan-blue camp’s long-term control of the lawmaking body and realigned the political parties represented.
Aside from the DPP winning an absolute majority with 68 of the Legislature’s 113 seats (pending recounts in two electoral districts), a nascent party formed in 2015, the New Power Party, gained a presence in the body after winning five seats. It added a “new yellow” to the “blue” KMT, the “green” DPP, and the “orange” People First Party (considered part of the pan-blue camp) in the Legislature, replacing the “old yellow,” the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which failed to win a single seat.
In addition, the “New Legislature” will have 47 new faces when it begins its first session on Feb. 1, and more young representatives under 40 will take office at the same time than ever before.
These new, younger lawmakers will face unprecedented challenges.
As the majority party, the DPP will immediately have to deal with the public’s strong voice for legislative reform. “Reforming the Legislature is simple,” said former DPP lawmaker Lin Cho-shui (林濁水) at a book launch, microphone in hand as he scanned the audience. “It’s completely up to the people with control.”
“We have worked hard for so long. This time, an opportunity for reform has finally arrived,” says Ku Chung-hwa (顧忠華), a sociologist and the former president of the legislative watchdog group Citizen Congress Watch.
Even before the presidential and legislative elections, there was a consensus for “legislative reform” among the blue, green and orange parties, Ku says. He jokes that the advocacy for reform by civic groups in the past was like a dog barking at a train, “but after barking and barking some more, the train has surprisingly turned.”
First Step: Amending the Constitution
For legislative reforms to take hold, the structure of government under the country’s five-branch Constitution needs to be revised to clarify the Legislature’s role and its relationship between the Executive Yuan (the executive branch of government), the Control Yuan (responsible for investigating and censuring public agencies, officials and civil servants) and the Examination Yuan (responsible for screening, selecting and managing civil servants).
If the DPP and KMT call for the Legislative Yuan to have “investigative powers,” those powers could easily come in conflict with the investigative powers granted the Control Yuan under the Constitution.
“The DPP advocates amending the Constitution and abolishing the Control Yuan. Otherwise, (the Legislature) would only have limited powers of investigation, and there would be no way to distinguish between the investigative powers of the Legislative Yuan and the Control Yuan,” says DPP lawmaker Yu Mei-nu (尤美女), who retained her seat as an at-large legislator in the Jan. 16 elections.
When the newly elected Legislative Yuan meets at the beginning of February, the country will face another dilemma. According to the spirit of the Constitution, the Cabinet (Executive Yuan) should be formed by the party with the majority in the Legislature, to conform to Taiwan’s dual executive system consisting of the president and a premier who heads the Cabinet.
The DPP, however, does not want to take responsibility for the problems left behind by the incumbent regime before Tsai takes office on May 20, and has refused to form a new Cabinet, insisting instead on a caretaker government that will leave the executive branch of government in limbo for four months. The result will be an “old government, new Legislature” transition period that has some people worried.
If a Cabinet were formed by the majority party in the Legislature, it would bring to reality a constitutional conundrum that has long existed in theory, namely that the president has power but no responsibility and the premier has responsibility but no power.
“For a long time, we have talked about everything from a parliamentary system and a presidential system to semi-presidential system, but what we’re seeing today is a ‘hanging-in-the-air’ system,” Ku criticized.
He believes that because the issue involves the Constitution, the new Legislature should form a “constitutional amendment committee” when it meets in February. The DPP says it will be committed to constitutional change, without saying when.
“Tsai Ing-wen has promised that the Legislature will initiate constitutional reforms. That won’t change,” asserts the DPP’s Yu, who argues that what people should worry about is if revisions can actually pass.
A constitutional amendment can be proposed by a quarter of the members of the Legislative Yuan but it has to be approved by three-quarters of the lawmakers at a meeting where at least three-quarters of all lawmakers are present before being put to a national referendum. Because the KMT won more than a quarter of the seats in the Jan. 16 election, it would have the ability to block proposed amendments.
In pushing constitutional revisions, the DPP will not only require determination but will also have to take into account whether the measures touch a sensitive nerve across the Taiwan Strait.
Second Step: Transparency, Efficiency
The newly elected Legislative Yuan will also have to heed public calls for greater efficiency in pushing through legislation and more transparency in cross-party consultations when discussing legislation.
“From procedural efficiency to the transparency of cross-party consultations, these issues can be dealt with in the law governing the Legislature’s power. They don’t require constitutional amendments,” says Shih Shin-min (施信民), a National Taiwan University chemical engineering professor who recently stepped down as the president of Citizen Congress Watch.
Beyond revising the “Law Governing the Legislative Yuan’s Power,” the most important task, Shih contends, is to forge a lawmaking body that is “open to the people” and allows the people to monitor the body, which will force politicians to do as they say and live up to their promises.
The entry of a “third force” (the NPP) in the Legislature may offer some impetus for pushing through change, but Lin Cho-shui cautions that for that to happen, “these third party members must have progressive thinking.”
In terms of the widely criticized cross-party consultations, used to try to forge a consensus on legislation across party lines rather than having lawmakers vote on pending bills, a political party only needs three seats to form a caucus and participate in the process with the DPP and KMT, which means the NPP will be in on the game.
“(Our position) is not that we don’t want cross-party consultations,” admits NPP Secretary-General Chen Hui-min (陳惠敏), but she says the consultations must preserve the right to dissent, i.e. the power to express different opinions. The party also wants these cross-party consultations recorded for public scrutiny and hopes to promote a “committee-centered” system to have bills substantively reviewed in committee.
The attitude of the new majority party, the DPP, will be critical to deciding whether to abolish closed-door consultations or make them more transparent.
“Is the DPP willing to do anything? It will depend on how much power it has,” says veteran legislative aide and PFP spokesman Clarence Wu (吳崑玉).
Eliminating consultations and instituting the system of having lawmakers vote on legislation would be disadvantageous to minority parties, such as Wu’s PFP, which will have three seats in the new Legislature.
But Wu argues that if the consultation process is preserved but made public, it won’t help much in practice. Politics by their very nature involve consultations and compromise, he says, so “everybody will put on a show for the cameras and then retreat to dark corners to continue to engage in horse trading.”
Every step toward reform involves taking into account countless tangible and invisible interests, so is it possible for transparency and efficiency to co-exist? It may require reshaping the Legislature’s underlying structure.
Cross-strait Issues a Potential Thorn
The most formidable dilemmas the DPP could face in the Legislature could involve battles focused on relations with China. When it comes to cross-strait issues, the DPP is at opposite ends of the spectrum from the KMT and PFP and though it formed an alliance with the NPP during the election campaign, sharing similar anti-nuclear and pension reform positions, the two may differ on China because of a gap between “idealism” and “pragmatism.”
Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉), an associate research fellow in Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science and a longtime observer of cross-strait issues, says there could be friction between the DPP and the NPP on China.
Citing legislation on the oversight of cross-strait agreements as an example, Hsu says the DPP and the NPP support different versions of the bill. He wonders whether the NPP, as the inheritor of the legacy of the Sunflower Movement and Taiwan Independence groups, will uphold the spirit of the Sunflower Movement and insist on the movement’s version of the bill or side with the DPP’s position.
“The NPP’s attitude (on this issue) will influence how society sees it and how it is defined as a political party,” Hsu says.
What this suggests is that the NPP might not only reject a close alliance with the DPP on cross-strait issues, it could end up being its fiercest opponent. If the NPP works with the DPP, it will have abandoned what it stands for and ultimately lose its soul, making it hard for the party to resonate with voters again in the next election.
The Opposition KMT’s Battle for Survival
Back to election night, the KMT’s losing presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫) and his wife Kao Wan-chien (高婉倩) bow three times to a flag-waving crowd to apologize for the party’s poor performance. (Chu only received about 31 percent of the votes, compared with Tsai’s 56 percent and People First Party Chairman James Soong’s nearly 13 percent.)
“In the future, we will do our best in playing the role of a supervisor and opposition party,” Chu said as he resigned as chairman of the KMT to take political responsibility for the defeat.
Reduced to the role of opposition party, the KMT will fight a “battle for survival” in the new Legislature. But having lost access to administrative resources and its party assets in jeopardy – simply put without money or power – the KMT is like an eagle without its two wings. If it wants to survive, the return to life must begin in the Legislative Yuan in part by playing the role of a loyal opposition.
Citizen Congress Watch executive director Chang Hung-lin (張宏林) believes that the KMT needs to come in contact with a greater diversity of voices to set or revise policy directions. In deepening its roots over decades in Taiwan, the KMT fostered a stable organization and structure that allowed it to cultivate its own party employees and local systems, Chang says. That meant that the KMT saw NGOs that made their voices heard or were critical of authorities as collaborating with the DPP, leading the NGO community to shift its support to the DPP.
“When you label people, pushing NGOs into the enemy camp, how will they support you when you need them?” Chang wonders.
Prior to the election, the KMT’s Central Standing Committee invited Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮), a professor in National Chengchi University’s Department of Land Economics, to discuss the concept of land justice.
“At the time, everybody was very surprised. If the KMT is willing to continue on this path, I think it will be a good beginning,” he says.
What is clear is that the election results have set the stage for a new political landscape, in which all eyes will be on the DPP.
“If the DPP wins an absolute majority, there will be times when it still should compromise,” said Hawang Shiow-duan, a political science professor at Soochow University, prior to the election when analyzing the implications of various outcomes.
“You have to understand the possible reaction of the opposition party and come up with solutions that everybody can accept,” she argues, saying that if a proposal stirs up widespread criticism, it will be preferable to pull back rather than trying to ram it through.
Shaking the Government through the Ballot Box
Though the DPP has just come off a major election victory, it still must maintain a sense of caution and fear, knowing full well that the ballot in each voter’s hands can be used to catapult it out of power. The character voted as most representative of 2015 – “change” – explains the current direction of popular sentiment.
From the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s to the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2010, and now the thorough electoral defeat of the “100-year” KMT, they all seemingly happened overnight. But they all resulted from small creeks of dissent that converged over time to form a major river of turbulence.
“That is the trend and public opinion. Don’t underestimate the energy amassed by public opinion. Nobody knows when it will erupt,” the DPP’s Yu says.
This may be one of the greatest values of democracy, an asset that has enabled Taiwan to emerge as the only country in the Chinese-speaking world where people can use ballots to change the political landscape.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier