Musings on the old and new premiers

It seems I don’t get around to blogging very much these days. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace as we move into the next election cycle. In the meantime, I have a few thoughts on the recent cabinet reshuffle.

 

Former Premier Lin Chuan’s 林全 resignation did not come as much of a surprise. After 16 months, it was time for a reset. His satisfaction ratings were not great, but it’s easy to overstate that point. We’ve had several stories in the international media gasping about President Tsai’s cratering satisfaction ratings in the high 20s or low 30s (“worse than Trump!!!!”), and Lin’s ratings were a notch below those levels. However, the Taiwanese electorate is historically much stingier with its approval for national politicians than the American electorate, and ratings in this range haven’t historically heralded disaster. I’ll have more to say on public opinion in a subsequent post. For right now, let’s just say that Lin’s ratings weren’t spectacular.

Taiwanese cabinet members come in two broad prototypes: elected politicians and technocrats. Lin is a classic technocrat, having served in various administrative and policy-focused positions since the mid-1990s. It is somewhat ironic that his biggest failings were technical rather than political. In recent weeks, the KMT has enthusiastically thrown the legislature into chaos protesting the Forward-Looking infrastructure package. They have made some substantive arguments against the package, such as claiming that spending on railways is wasteful, but their first and most effective argument was that the documentation was sloppy and incomplete. The cabinet’s original proposal for the massive eight year package came with a pitifully thin set of documents explaining exactly what the money would used for. In other words, the technocrats had not bothered to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. This is the kind of problem you might expect a career politician – with a focus on power and coalitions – to make, not a career technocrat who supposedly revels in the details of public policy. Lin ran into the same sort of problem in his biggest failing, the revision of the Labor Standards Law that has left almost no one satisfied. The broad and inflexible brush strokes of the new policy are the kind of thing you would not expect from a policy nerd with a detailed understanding of labor markets. They are exactly what you might expect from a politician catering to the whims of a specific interest group and ignoring all the others.

Meanwhile, Lin passed one of the most important political tests for any premier: he could almost always count on support from a majority in the legislature. The DPP LY caucus may not have been thrilled with the amendments to the Labor Standards Law, but they were willing not only to vote en masse for those amendments but even to physically push KMT legislators off the speaker’s podium so that they could vote for Lin’s bill. Likewise, in the fight over infrastructure, the DPP LY caucus allowed the KMT caucus to make noise and express their discontent, but at the end of the day, they passed the cabinet’s plan relatively unchanged. For the most part, the LY had Lin’s back. If you think that is trivial, try talking to former KMT Premier Jiang Yi-huah 江宜樺about whether a majority party in the LY always supports the premier’s agenda.

From a political perspective, Lin also handled marriage equality quite deftly. In the face of strident demands from pro-marriage equality forces to amend the Civil Code and deep trepidation from DPP legislators staring at polls showing substantial opposition to this among back in their districts, Lin simply sidestepped the issue. By interpreting the Grand Justices’ ruling as implying that the language in the Civil Code requiring marriage to include one man and one woman was unconstitutional, Lin decided that there was no need to amend the Civil Code. Gay marriages can be registered under the current law. In this way, Lin did not force DPP legislators into a no-win situation by forcing them to offend either their young voters or everyone over forty.

This is not to say that Lin has been a terrible technocrat and a genius politician. He has had plenty of political failings. For example, somehow the DPP managed to tackle the very thorny issue of pension reform, pass a bill that the KMT didn’t dare try to physically block in the legislature, and still leave the majority of people dissatisfied. What should have been a crowning triumph of Lin’s tenure is instead something that most people think should have been handled better. The technocratic efforts are, by nature, less visible, but it is reasonable to assume that he has quietly launched drives to remake government policy in a number of areas. Still, it is striking to me that his highest profile setbacks were mostly technical in nature.

 

Tainan mayor William Lai 賴清德 is the new premier, and there is a lot of speculation about his next move. Some people think he will run for New Taipei mayor next year, while others think he is planning to run for president in 2020. I don’t think either of these are likely.

The timetable for a mayoral run is very tight. The election will be in late November or early December next year, so he would have to start his campaign (and resign as premier) by May or June at the latest. However, he would have to announce his intention (or “reluctant capitulation” to the intense arm-twisting pressure from the rest of the DPP) to run a month or two before that. In other words, he would ony have a maximum of eight months in office as premier before starting the campaign. In April 2010, Eric Chu 朱立倫 announced he would be willing to run for New Taipei mayor after only eight months as deputy premier, so maybe the calendar isn’t too tight. However, I think premier and deputy premier are fundamentally different positions. The deputy premier isn’t the one in charge of the executive branch; Chu was not the one determining policy directions. When the deputy premier resigns, there is no need to formally reshuffle the cabinet. Mayor is arguably a step up from deputy premier, while it is almost certainly a step down from premier. It just doesn’t make sense for the premier, after only eight months, to claim that he has successfully accomplished everything he wants to do in his current job and is now ready to move on to a new and less important challenge. For the deputy premier, though, that makes perfect sense. Perhaps Frank Hsieh 謝長廷 is a better model for this proposed jump than Eric Chu. Hsieh was re-elected as Kaohsiung mayor in 2002, became premier in 2005, and then ran for Taipei mayor in 2006. However, Hsieh served as premier from February 2005 to January 2006, almost a full calendar year. Moreover, he took over as premier much earlier in the cycle (February rather than September) and he resigned well before the nominations for the next mayoral elections were decided. His calendar was much less compressed than Lai’s. Still, one year is not a particularly long time as premier, and Hsieh did not exactly resign in triumph. This lackluster record as premier probably contributed to his landslide defeat in the Taipei mayoral race. It is hard to see Lai arguing that he was a successful premier with only eight months in office. Running for mayor would probably require him to talk defensively rather than brag proudly about his tenure as premier.

Lai is even less likely to run for president in 2020 than to run for mayor in 2018. For one thing, as premier, he will now be tightly identified with Tsai. His triumphs are her triumphs, and her failings will rub off on him. More fundamentally, there simply is not much demand within the DPP right now for someone to split the party by running against their incumbent president. Tsai is still the leader of the party. Some of the shine may have come off her leadership, but she is still the unquestioned top dog and still on track to win a second term.

Lai’s goal should be for the DPP’s 2024 nomination. He is not necessarily in a great position for this. Premiers tend to have a relatively short shelf life. If he does very well, he might make it to the 2020 presidential election as premier. It is almost unthinkable that he might make it all the way to the 2024 election as premier. Perhaps his best scheme might be to persuade the current VP to yield that spot to him in order to guarantee his survival to 2024. However, it seems highly unlikely at this point that Chen Chien-jen 陳建仁 would want to step aside or that Tsai Ing-wen would ask him to. If we are still thinking of Lai as a presidential contender after his tenure as premier ends, he will have to find some other platform to keep him in the public eye for a year or three until the 2024 presidential campaign begins. However, that is a problem that we don’t have to worry about right now.

 

We are hearing a lot about how Lai is a leader of the New Tide 新潮流 faction, and some people are wondering if the New Tide faction is becoming dominant within the DPP. After all, it now controls the cabinet, many important local governments (Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taoyuan, Changhua, Pingtung), and it has a powerful presence in the LY. This is correct on the surface, but it is worth asking how cohesive the New Tide still is. From the 1980s through the Chen presidency, New Tide was famous for its internal discipline. There were three leaders (Lin Cho-shui 林濁水, Chiu I-jen 邱義仁, and Wu Nai-jen 吳乃仁) who ran the faction. They defined the ideals and policy priorities, built the organizational network, raised money, recruited and trained talent, made deals with other factions, and generally cultivated a tightly disciplined faction. Those three leaders have mostly faded from the scenes. Today’s New Tide is led by a disparate group of local leaders (the aforementioned mayors) and legislators (especially Tuan Yi-kang段宜康). There is no longer any central authority. Chen Chu 陳菊 may be a New Tide member, but she is primarily the mayor of Kaohsiung and her highest priority is on Kaohsiung’s problems. She isn’t going to take orders from William Lai or any other New Tide member. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to think that she has organized her own Kaohsiung-based faction including many people who are not necessarily New Tide figures and who answers to her rather than to any national New Tide leadership. The same goes for Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦 in Taoyuan and every other mayor. In the legislature, the New Tide faction might help win nominations, but I don’t think it exercises quite as much control over its members as it once did. During the Chen-era, we started hearing about the North Tide 北流, Central Tide 中流, and South Tide 南流. These three had very different attitudes about whether to support the embattled President Chen. The North Tide led calls for him to resign, while the South Tide was much more supportive (reflecting difference in the larger population among northern and southern voters). The New Tide didn’t quite fracture, but its cohesion did suffer. I don’t think it has or will ever fully recover. So while it is not meaningless that Lai is a New Tide member, this doesn’t imply that New Tide is taking over everything. New Tide isn’t really a cohesive (unitary) actor with a distinctive set of policy preferences these days.

 

I’m not exactly buying into the hype about William Lai. I think there are a lot of parallels between Lai and Eric Chu. Both were relentlessly promoted by the media as the party’s great savior without having done very much to earn that mantle. Chu was a scholar and Lai was a doctor, both were singled out at a fairly young age and placed into a solidly blue/green district that they could win without much challenge. Both are physically attractive enough, neither is brimming with charisma, and neither has actually accomplished as much as you have the impression they have. Yet, somehow, we all have been led to believe that they are presidential material. In their first forays into cross-straits affairs, they even employed similar strategies by playing superficial word games. Chu tweaked the 1992 consensus, changing one character and advocating One China, both sides with the same interpretation 一中同表. Lai tried to coin a vacuous pro-China, love Taiwan 親中愛台. Both seemed to think that they could cleverly clear away all the obstacles to cross-straits relations by coming up with a better four-character slogan than anyone else. Neither seems to have bothered to think through the implications of these formulae the way Ma, Tsai, or Hsieh did.

In early 2015 when Chu took over as KMT party chair, I wrote that he was now stepping out of the easy aura of a local mayor, in which most every action is reported with a favorable tinge by an accommodating local reporter, and into the harsh light of national politics, where every action would be scrutinized and (fairly or unfairly) attacked if any partisan advantage could be gained. Likewise, Lai now steps into that harsh limelight. Rather than taking credit for the mango harvest or paving a road, he will more likely be blamed for not having a quick and painless solution to a variety of intractable problems such as the low birthrate, systemic youth unemployment, or companies willing to compromise food safety in order to cut costs. Lai just stepped into the big leagues, and the vague hero image that his boosters have so assiduously cultivated won’t survive if he doesn’t deliver the goods.

The parallel to Chu isn’t perfect. Lai has faced and overcome a few more electoral challenges than Chu. Chu won one term in the legislature; Lai won four terms. In particular, Lai survived the 2008 KMT tidal wave even though Ma beat Hsieh in his district. In addition, while Chu had both the Taoyuan and New Taipei mayoral nominations handed to him, Lai won an intense primary in 2010 to secure the mayoral nomination. However, if Lai has a few more substantial victories than Chu, he also has a couple of red flags. Lai has not been able to forge a compromise with affected residents over the rerouting of a rail line. He was also unable to manage a Dengue Fever outbreak.

But most disturbing was his response to the election of a KMT politician as speaker of the Tainan City council. Lai accused the speaker of buying votes and refused to attend city council meetings until the speaker was removed. The speaker probably had bought votes, but that is hardly justification for Lai’s behavior. The mayor does not have the power to assign guilt; that is job of the judiciary. Lai’s certitude in his right to assign guilt and ignore his legal duty to give reports and answer interpellations in the city council belies a stunning moral arrogance. The KMT sarcastically dubbed him Deity Lai 賴神, and, dishearteningly, he has not shied away from that moniker. It is very easy to imagine him refusing to see a flawed decision or even doubling down on it. If he is to have a successful tenure as premier, he will have to show a bit more humility that he has thus far.

 

2 Responses to “Musings on the old and new premiers”

  1. shiyali Says:

    Very helpful analysis. Thank you.

  2. Alexandre Says:

    I’m very greateful I can resort to your blog to understand Taiwanese politics. Not only your analysis presents original and sensible point of view, I like how accessible it is for being written in English rather than Mandarin.

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