Is it justifiable for students to physically occupy the legislature? Is it undemocratic to use extra-legal methods? Many thoughtful people are asking these sorts of questions right now, and they are good questions. As always, it depends. However, my answer is almost always “no.” It is almost never ok to go outside normal democratic procedures. Bypassing democracy is rarely the way to protect democracy.
However, as I’ve thought about this case, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those rare exceptional cases.
The Services Trade Agreement is a critical decision for Taiwan’s future. This pact has the potential to fundamentally alter Taiwan’s character. It is not merely a question of liberalizing Taiwan’s international trade regime; it will have important implications for Taiwan’s sovereignty. Moreover, it has now become a point of contestation for whether or not democratic procedures will be respected. The free trade aspect, as important as it is, is merely the third-most important aspect of the current struggle.
Such a monumental proposed change needs to be legitimized by the legislature. Short-cuts are simply not acceptable. The KMT has the right to pass the pact and it has the right to do so without making any changes, but it must do so by following certain procedures and demonstrating a unity of purpose. In any democratic process, the losing side has the right to lose according to the rules.
The trigger for the student occupation was the Interior Committee hearing in which KMT Convener Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠 slunk off in the corner and unilaterally determined that the committee should report the bill to the floor. Chang justified his action by pointing out that DPP legislators had physically occupied the podium. He wanted to report the bill that day, and this was the only way he could see to do it.
Opposition obstruction is a challenge for every ruling party in every legislature in the world. There are many ways to deal with obstruction. Ruling parties can change the procedural rules to eliminate common obstruction strategies. For example, they can shorten the amount of time allotted for debate or rule particular amendments out of bounds. In Taiwan’s immediate context, the opposition often blocks proceedings by occupying the podium. I have always wondered why the KMT doesn’t simply change the rules to allow the speaker to declare that another location in the room is now the official podium. Another thing the KMT could have done was to bypass the committee stage. That is, if the KMT didn’t think it could pass the bill in the committee, the floor has the power to take a vote to pull the bill out of committee. Alternatively, Chang could have demanded a vote in the Interior Committee to report the bill to the floor.
What these various tactics all require is repeated effort and high degrees of unity from the ruling party. The opposition may strenuously oppose, but the ruling party has the numbers and can eventually prevail IF it can match the opposition’s intensity. This may require painful vote after vote. It may require many days or even weeks of scorched earth legislative tactics. Most importantly, it requires the ruling party to collectively and individually assume political responsibility for the measure. If it is really that important, every legislator has to get his or her hands dirty. In the face of an intense minority, the measure is only legitimized if a majority proves again and again that it is unified in support.
That is not what happened. Rather, the KMT tried to take a shortcut. We don’t know whether the KMT is unified in support of this bill because the leadership hasn’t asked them to demonstrate solidarity. Heck, even Convener Chang doesn’t want to claim ownership for the pact. He was quoted as saying there was no reason for him to take responsibility since he wasn’t the one who signed the agreement. He was just following orders.
In effect, what the students are doing is to remind the “adults” about the basic principles of democracy. The various student groups have many varied demands; all of them insist that Chang’s decision should not stand. They want the pact sent back to committee where it should receive a thorough review. This student occupation movement is not like the Arab Spring or the American Occupy Movement. The students are not asking for fundamental regime or structural changes. They are demanding that the politicians respect the process. I think they understand that eventually they will have to yield the floor back to the legislators, and the legislators will make the critical decisions about how to handle the Services Trade Agreement. However, students are focusing public attention on the procedures and the content of the pact so that when the legislators make those decisions, the public will be paying closer attention. Instead of only asking what party leaders want, legislators will have to worry about what their voters think. Hopefully that will be enough to convince legislators to eschew any further shortcuts.