Taiwan’s ‘New Era’ and the Legislative Yuan

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Taiwan’s ‘New Era’ and the Legislative Yuan

For the first time, the DPP must transition from an opposition to a governing party in the legislature.

Taiwan’s ‘New Era’ and the Legislative Yuan
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

On May 20, Taiwan’s first female president took the oath of office to officially assume her post. Significant as the moment was, arguably the more historic transfer of power took place more than three months prior, on February 1, when the ninth session of the Legislative Yuan (LY) officially opened. Taiwan has elected a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president before – Chen Shui-bian, who served from 2000-2008 – but never before has the DPP held a majority in the LY. Now, for the first time, the DPP must play the role of the majority party, while the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) is relegated to the opposition.

In the election on January 20, the DPP won 68 of the legislature’s 113 seats, up from 40 in the 2012 elections. The KMT, meanwhile, tumbled from 64 seats to a mere 35. That not only gave the DPP its first chance at governing with control of both presidency and legislature, but gave the DPP a full majority in the legislature for the first time since Taiwan’s first direct legislative elections were held in 1992.*

In February, Su Jia-chyuan, an at-large legislator who ran as Tsai’s vice presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, became the first DPP president of the Legislative Yuan (a position akin to the U.S. Speaker of the House). His predecessor, the KMT’s Wang Jin-pyng, had held the post for nearly two decades – from 1999 to 2016. That difference in experience translates to other legislators as well; as Gwenyth Wang pointed out in an analysis for Ketagalan Media, “The 19 KMT incumbents who lost their elections collectively had 68 terms of seniority. Their seats are taken by non-KMT challengers with a collective 6 terms under their belts.” Wang also notes that “over one-third of the [current] legislators” have no prior experience in the LY at all.

The legislative transition received less attention than the presidential shift, with media outlets preferring to focus on Tsai Ing-wen. However, the LY has an equally important role to play. Legislating as a majority party is a new role for the DPP, and and how it handles the transition will go a long way toward determining the success of Tsai’s administration.

Expectations are sky-high. An impressive margin of victory for Tsai and solid majority for the DPP in the LY has handed the party a popular mandate, but it also has fostered high hopes for completing an ambitious agenda. In particular, the sense of a “new era” dawning for Taiwan – a phrase embraced by Tsai and the DPP, including four mentions in her inaugural address – creates intense pressure for change.

Many of the tasks the DPP has set for itself will involve difficult political wrangling and compromise. The legislative challenge getting the most attention abroad is the debate over a cross-strait oversight bill, designed to provide a legislative monitoring mechanism for Executive Yuan negotiations with the PRC. However, other policy plans – creating a “new economic model” as well as pursuing transitional justice – will be even more difficult to navigate.

Then there’s the arduous task of reforming the LY itself. New legislative President Su Jia-chyuan spoke of creating a “new parliament of the people” that is open, professional, and responsive to constituents. We must “allow sunshine” in the LY, Su told a group of foreign journalists on May 19, pledging to improve transparency and citizen oversight of the legislature.

With a policy agenda that is as long as it is ambitious, the DPP legislators have their work cut out for them. We “shoulder heavy responsibility,” Su acknowledged, a theme also present in Tsai’s inaugural speech and heard from other legislators.

One adjustment the DPP will have to make is that the greatest challenge to its agenda now comes from within. The KMT can delay bills, particularly by invoking the cross-caucus negotiation process which requires inter-party negotiations to precede a vote if at least 10 legislators object to a certain bill. However, it cannot block bills entirely. That means, for the DPP, the most important stage of a bill’s evolution comes not in the committee discussions or floor debates, but during the intra-caucus drafting process before the bill is officially introduced.

Rather than debating with the KMT, the DPP is now primarily negotiating within itself to create draft bills, a DPP legislative assistant told The Diplomat. Different interests within the party have always existed, but with more than ever at stake – the ability to pass legislation with relative ease, compared to the party’s opposition days – these internal debates are now more important and apparent.

Factionalism is not new for the DPP; it was a major problem during the Chen administration, the last time the party was in a position to govern. In a 2001 book, Chen wrote that the DPP must reform itself – including jettisoning the factionalism that defined its early stages. “[B]eing a ruling party, the party’s methods of operation have to be absolutely different from those of the past,” Chen wrote. “[… If] the interests of the factions conflict with those of the nation, what do you think is more important — party factions, or the national strength?”

For those worried that intra-party factions will harm legislative efficiency, the unanimous election of Su (a close confidant of Tsai) as LY president was a positive signal. Still, the potential for in-fighting remains a concern as the majority of DPP legislators are at least loosely affiliated with various factions. “More than 30 of the current crop of DPP legislators have factional connections that are well-publicized, and another 20 more … share friendly relations with factions, or party elders,” Aaron Wytze Wilson writes in Ketagalan Media. For those keeping count at home, that’s 50 of the DPP’s 68 legislators. With the DPP scheduled to select its Central Executive Committee and Central Standing Committee this year, competition could intensify if not handled with care, Wilson notes.

To date, Tsai (who is DPP chair in addition to her new title as president) has seemed quite capable of keeping her party unified and in line. But should that change, a potential challenger is waiting in the wings to capitalize on any stumbles from the DPP: the upstart New Power Party. Formed only last year, the NPP now holds five seats in the LY, giving it the third largest bloc after the DPP and KMT. And the party is up-front about its determination to hold Tsai and the DPP legislators alike accountable for the promises they have made.

Huang Kuo-chang, the leader of the NPP and a legislator himself, sees the party as serving the role of a watchdog over the executive branch. The majority DPP, which previously relished the role of opposition, will now be supporting Tsai and the Executive Yuan. By contrast, Huang says, the NPP will “faithfully perform” its duty to supervise the executive branch and pressure Tsai to fulfill her campaign promises.

The NPP makes up a small but vocal minority in the legislature, and thus has the luxury of being judged not on its policy but on its principles. The NPP must rely on the support of other parties for any of its preferred legislation to pass, Huang explains, therefore he expects voters to “pay more attention” to “the message we send and the chemistry we brought” to the LY.

That means the NPP can be – and needs to be — particularly aggressive in pushing for new legislation such as a law setting a minimum wage, a core goal for the party. The DPP also endorsed a minimum wage act during the campaigns, but Huang says he is “reluctant to speculate” on whether or not the two parties will cooperate on this shared goal. The NPP has already submitted a draft version, Huang explains, but has heard no response from the DPP. In fact, as of mid-May, the NPP had sent 30 bills for consideration – setting more agendas than the DPP, according to Huang.

The LY has been in session for nearly four months, but with Tsai and her Cabinet now officially sworn in, their real work is just beginning. New Premier Lin Chuan will deliver his first administrative report to the LY on May 31, marking the beginning of formal collaboration between the DPP-held executive and legislative branches. As Lin said in a visit to the DPP legislative caucus on May 27, the party now has a chance to showcase its ability to govern Taiwan.

In other words, the pressure is on for the DPP, both in the Presidential Office and the Legislative Yuan.

*Booseung Chang of Stanford University points out that the DPP won more seats than the KMT in the 2001 and 2005 legislative elections; however, the DPP was not able to secure a full majority in either year.