Why Taiwan’s Political Paralysis Persists

by Shelley Rigger

April 18, 2002

Shelly Rigger is the Brown Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College. This essay is based on a presentation delivered at an FPRI symposium on the China-Taiwan issue on the occasion of the second anniversary of Chen Shui-bian’s election as President of Taiwan, held on March 25, 2002 in Philadelphia. Other speakers included June Teufel Dreyer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami/Coral Gables, and Jacques deLisle, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. Drs. Rigger, Dreyer, and deLisle are all Senior Fellows of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

On December 1 of last year, Taiwan held elections that many observers expected would relieve the gridlock that had gripped the island’s legislature since May 2000. The election results strengthened President Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and sharply reduced the number of seats held by the largest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Since the newly-elected legislators took their seats in early February, however, it has become obvious that the December elections did little to alleviate Taiwan’s political paralysis.

The Turning Point That Wasn’t

When President Chen was inaugurated in May 2000, the KMT— along with two like-minded minor parties, the New Party and the People First Party (PFP)— held a majority in the island’s 225-member legislature. These parties used their dominant position in the legislature to frustrate Chen’s administration at every turn. For example, to ensure continuity, Chen appointed a KMT member and former minister of defense to be his premier. The gesture failed; within days of his appointment, members of his own party were demanding the new premier’s resignation.

The nadir of Chen’s first year in office came in late 2000, when KMT legislators attempted to remove him from office. Popular distaste doomed the recall effort, and executive-legislative relations improved slightly in the second year of Chen’s presidency. In particular, two events helped to shore up Chen’s leadership: his 2001 visit to the United States (a transit visit in name only) and the bipartisan Economic Development Advisory Conference.

Progress toward cooperative relations between the legislative and executive branches advanced so slowly that it was barely perceptible, leading more than one political observer to conclude that the only hope of a breakthrough would be a significant shift in the parties’ legislative strength. Thus, December’s elections offered the first hope for breaking Taiwan’s political logjam.

The election results offered a stronger-than-expected endorsement of Chen’s presidency. The DPP won nearly all the seats it contested and became the largest party in the legislature, with 87 seats. The voters handed the KMT a punishing defeat, cutting the old ruling party’s seat share from 110 to 68. The PFP solidified its status as Taiwan’s third major party by capturing 46 seats. Thirteen seats went to the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which former President Lee Teng-hui created last summer as a vehicle for helping Chen govern more effectively.

In the run-up to the election, political analysts predicted that if the DPP became the largest party in the legislature, it would forge a working coalition of DPP and TSU legislators assisted by a handful of independent and KMT legislators sympathetic to President Chen and former president Lee. As it turned out, however, KMT and PFP leaders have managed to overcome their differences and maintain party discipline, allowing the conservative camp to wield its two-vote majority effectively. And so, the gridlock continues.

A Continuing Deadlock

The continuing deadlock is the result of several surprising consequences of the December elections, all of which were apparent in one of the legislature’s very first acts, the election of its speaker and vice speaker. After a lengthy debate, the DPP decided to support the incumbent speaker,KMT legislator Wang Jin-pyng, for re-election. In exchange, the DPP hoped Wang would endorse a DPP candidate to be his deputy. Instead, once Wang had been elected with a nearly unanimous vote, the KMT and PFP joined forces to block DPP nominee Hong Chi-chang from gaining the number two position. In effect, the conservative parties flung the DPP legislators’ goodwill gesture back into their faces, setting an ominous tone for the future.

The legislative leadership battle illustrates several disconcerting features of Taiwan’s new legislature. First, there is little evidence to suggest that the legislators chosen on December 1 will cooperate with the executive branch any more willingly than their predecessors. The election results appeared to represent a strong rebuke to the KMT, especially its most obstructionist elements. The party lost nearly half its representatives, including the leaders of the effort to recall President Chen. Nonetheless, their decision to deny the DPP a leadership post in the legislature suggests the KMT has not altered its hardball political strategy.

In addition, KMT legislators have defied predictions that some of their number would defect to the DPP, either formally or informally. Before the election, speculation centered on the so-called “localized KMT,” Kuomintang legislators believed to be loyal to Lee Teng-hui rather than current KMT chair Lien Chan. Lee created the Taiwan Advocates— which he called a “think and do tank”— as a home for localized KMT politicians. For his part, Chen Shui-bian planned the “cross-party alliance for national stabilization” as a fig leaf for legislators hoping to defect to the DPP side. Neither organization has attracted much support; in fact, Chen has not mentioned his cross-party alliance in weeks. In short, the “localized KMT” has not lived up to its advertising.

The speaker’s election also revealed a third surprise: the KMT and PFP can cooperate. Despite ideological disagreements and political conflicts of interest, the two conservative parties have maintained a united front against the DPP and TSU. Although their majority margin is vanishingly thin, if they can remain united and disciplined, they can thwart the government’s initiatives.

Finally, to make matters worse for the DPP, Lee’s TSU is not a reliable ally. The DPP’s choice of vice speaker candidate was not to the TSU’s liking, so to secure its votes, the DPP had to sacrifice other appointments. In the weeks since the legislative leadership fight, the TSU has been anything but a “vehicle for helping Chen govern more effectively.” TSU legislators have embarrassed the president by suggesting such provocative policy changes as making Taiwanese (Hokkien) a second official language and requiring that the ROC president be born in Taiwan. The TSU and DPP engaged in an especially nasty spat over a cabinet decision to allow Taiwanese semi-conductor companies to move 8-inch wafer fabricating plants to mainland China. The TSU threatened a vote of no confidence against the economics minister if the decision were not reversed. Most recently, the TSU has been pushing Chen to make a state of the nation address in the legislature. DPP legislators would rather not give conservative legislators a chance to heckle the president on live TV.

Unfinished Business

In sum, President Chen Shui-bian is hemmed in on both sides. On one flank, the conservative parties give little support or encouragement to the president’s moderate initiatives, preferring to attack when they can; otherwise, they remain silent. On the other flank, Taiwan nationalists in the TSU (and in the DPP) seek to strong arm Chen into rolling back his efforts to improve economic ties with the PRC. The recent controversy over secret fund used to lobby foreign governments has only intensified the pressure on Chen’s administration.

For the first year and a half of Chen’s presidency, divided government was the preferred explanation for the disfunctionality of Taiwan politics. Now that the voters have had the opportunity to express themselves in a legislative election, why has the situation remained so grim? The explanation lies in part in the unfinished business of Taiwan’s democratic transition. In particular, Taiwan suffers from poor institutional design and a weak party system.

Taiwan’s institutional framework does not provide a clear division or balance of power between the presidential office and the legislature. Nor is the relationship between the cabinet and these other entities well-defined. In theory, Taiwan has a parliamentary system with a separately-elected president responsible for national security. For a variety of reasons, however, the president enjoys a more important policy-making role than this description suggests. The importance of presidents during the pre-reform era, the popular mandate that accompanies direct presidential election, and the president’s power to appoint the premier without legislative confirmation all contribute to Taiwan’s “semi-presidentialism.” At the same time, however, the president has no veto power, which frees the legislature from the need to negotiate with the presidential office.

Taiwan’s party system suffers from several defects. Perhaps the most damaging is its fragmentation, which can be traced, in turn, to Taiwan’s anachronistic electoral system. At the moment, four parties control significant blocs in the legislature. Their conflicting political interests make stable coalitions unlikely, and their weak ideological foundations make them vulnerable to unprincipled and opportunistic political infighting. In practice, they have proven more skillful at obstruction than construction. Party fragmentation also gives the TSU disproportionate influence. Unfortunately, the one issue on which there is ideological divergence in the party system is national identity. As a result, Taiwan’s political arena echoes with sterile and divisive debates over ethnic symbolism and bureaucratic misconduct, while crucial policy issues— including the island’s prosperity and security— go unaddressed.

In a discussion of democratic consolidation in Developing Democracy, Larry Diamond warns that poor regime performance can erode citizens’ enthusiasm for democracy. Taiwan’s public has expressed its desire for effective government on many occasions, but the December elections have likely disappointed them once again.

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