Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 30 May 2024

The Taiwan parliament’s excessive power grab

Political divisions could be exploited by China to undermine ties with west

30 May 2024

The future of Taiwan’s democracy risks falling into jeopardy. A decision this week by Taipei’s opposition-dominated legislature to broaden its powers not only sets the stage for partisan confrontation. It could also undermine new president Lai Ching-te’s attempts to unify the island against growing pressure from China — which greeted his inauguration last week by holding the largest military exercises around the island in more than a year.

Democracies rely on checks and balances and legislatures have a right to hold presidents to account, and legislate as they see fit. But the powers the Legislative Yuan has awarded itself are excessive, and in parts sloppily written. There is a real risk they could be used by lawmakers from the Kuomintang or other opposition parties to pursue personal vendettas against political opponents. This would undercut public confidence in the legislature and, by extension, the democratic system Taiwan has nurtured over the past three decades.

The amendments to the law governing the legislature give it authority to investigate government policies and projects, including powers to summon military officials and review classified documents. They allow lawmakers to find government officials guilty of contempt of parliament, a new criminal charge punishable with fines or prison. Lawmakers can also force companies, civic groups, or individuals to testify on anything related to government business, and fine them heavily if they fail to satisfy demands for detailed testimony.

Some commentators say the changes amount to a “parliamentary coup”. Some of the legislature’s new powers stray into areas that more properly reside with the justice system.

The possibility, for instance, of a government official being thrown into prison for up to three years because lawmakers judge that he or she is in “contempt of parliament” — an ill-defined charge — could open the door to politically-motivated witch hunts.

There are security issues too. A newlycreated power allows for lawmakers to force military officials to testify and reveal classified information. Such provisions could, for example, compromise the confidentiality of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine project by exposing undisclosed ties with foreign suppliers.

Such risks to Taiwan’s democracy derive in part from the result of January’s election. Lai’s Democratic Progressive party lost its majority in the legislature, significantly complicating his ability to push forward a DPP agenda during his presidency. The KMT and a second opposition party, the Taiwan People’s party, can work together to outvote the DPP. Lai also failed to win an outright presidential majority, marking a sharp difference with his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, who won in 2016 and 2020 with a clear majority.

The sea change in Taiwan’s political landscape requires a very different approach. All parties should take a step back and put Taiwan’s national interest ahead of their own political interests. They should seek dialogue aimed at strengthening a national consensus.

A politically-divided Taiwan will not only stoke partisan divisions but also create fertile ground for China’s attempts to infiltrate the island and undermine its ties with the US and other western powers. If Taiwan’s main suppliers of weapons, primarily the US, start to suspect that the confidentiality of its dealings cannot be guaranteed, this could complicate Taiwan’s defence.

For its part, the DPP should desist from its instinct to accuse the KMT of colluding with China. It should also stop describing the current crisis as a life-ordeath issue that only street demonstrations can stop. It is time to dial down the emotion and put national interests first.

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