[I began writing this post this afternoon. It reflects how my thinking has crystallized over the past few days. Most was written before tonight’s events at the Executive Yuan. I’m not yet sure how that changes my thinking.]
In my Frozen Garlic Manifesto, I claim to have one clear political bias. I am a democrat. In light of this week’s events, maybe I need to clarify that. I believe, first and foremost, in representative democracy. This belief has led me to have very deeply conflicted feelings about the student protests.
On the one hand, I am humbled and inspired by the student’s sincerity, passion, organization, self-control, and maturity. Last night, I listened to a small-scale lecture from a NTU law student rebut the KMT legal explanation for why it was legal to send the bill to the floor in the way they did. The student was thorough, careful, and utterly persuasive. These students are humbling, and they make me proud to be part of this society.
On the other hand, well, this part is more complicated.
There are two conceptually different protests. One is outside. I have no problems at all with the protests outside the legislature. I believe they are legal, justified, and I personally support just about everything they want. The protest inside the legislature is an entirely different animal.
By occupying the legislative chamber, the students have effectively suspended the normal operations of democracy. The legislature cannot act while the students are there. This is not something we should take lightly.
No matter how much popular support a protest group has, it does not have the same legitimacy as a democratically elected legislature. We simply do not allow marchers to make decisions for the general public. The public conferred the power to make public decisions on that group of 113 people through its votes in the 2012 election. The protesters outside have not gotten any such formal delegation of power from the populace. In 2006, the Red Shirt protesters mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and they had widespread public sympathy, but that did not negate the results of the 2004 election. Chen Shui-bian remained the legitimately elected president. Similarly, the 113 members of the legislature remain the only people who can make legislative decisions on behalf of the general public.
In almost all other cases, I would consider occupying the legislative chamber to be illegitimate and anti-democratic, and clearing them by force (if necessary) would be entirely appropriate. In this particular case, I think there is a small gray area, and I believe the occupation is justified. However, there are limits on how long the students can stay and what they can demand, and I am worried that they are getting dangerously close to crossing these (fuzzy) lines.
In light of the extreme importance of the Cross Straits Services Trade Agreement and the questionable way in which it was being processed in the legislature, I think it was justifiable for the students to demand a time out. This is the most important issue to come before the legislature in the six years of Ma’s presidency, and it has the potential to fundamentally reshape society. It deserves careful treatment. It was not getting careful treatment, to say the least. What the students have done is to tell the society to wake up and pay attention, the media to cover the debates in a substantive and responsible way, and the parties to stop merely grandstanding for political points or blindly following orders from above. They are telling all of us to pay attention, understand the choice, make a sober decision based on society’s best interests, and to follow the legal processes for making such a decision.
However, this implies limits. They can stay in the legislature only as long as necessary to focus society’s attention on the substantive content of the CSSTA. Moreover, they cannot demand that the legislature must pass or not pass various items. The power to legislate belongs to the 113 elected legislators and to them only.
When the students demand that the CSSTA be withdrawn and renegotiated, or that a supervisory law must be passed before the CSSTA can be passed, they are crossing a line. When they make substantive demands like this, they are effectively claiming a higher legitimacy than the legislature itself. Note that those types of demands are entirely proper when they are made on the street. However, when protesters inside the legislature make those same demands and refuse to allow the legislature to resume operations until those demands are met, they are holding democracy hostage. This is where I get off the train.
Ultimately, a critical sticking point for me is that the KMT won the 2012 elections. They have a legitimate majority in the legislature. Many people are arguing that Ma and the KMT have betrayed the voters’ intentions, but I’m having a hard time accepting that argument.
Ma (and his whole party) ran for re-election trumpeting the achievements of his first term and promising to continue on the same path. ECFA was the most important achievement of the first term. CSSTA is an extension and continuation of ECFA. There is a very good argument to be made that CSSTA is exactly what the voters should have expected Ma to do when they voted to re-elect him (and his party) in 2012. This is not the proposed peace agreement. Ma explicitly stepped away from that, promising that he would not sign a peace agreement except under very specific conditions. He never said anything similar about not wanting to further deepen the economic relationship. Ma won the election, and elections have consequences.
Over the years, I have heard people in many countries justify what I considered to be anti-democratic movements by claiming that the very essence of the country was in danger. I rejected those arguments, usually with quite a bit of disdain. I’m starting to have a little more appreciation for just how difficult it can be to stick to democratic ideals in the face of a policy direction that you strongly disagree with. Still, I prefer to lose the immediate political fight and save the democratic structure.
When I started writing this post, I believed the students were still on the acceptable side of the (very fuzzy) line. However, their demands were becoming more substantive and less about democratic procedure, and they were getting dangerously close to the line. I haven’t had time to digest tonight’s events at the EY which are still unfolding, but I think it is getting closer and closer to the time when students should leave the government institutions and take their protests back to the streets while they still can. It is very difficult to quit while you are ahead, and I fear they have missed their opportunity.