Archive for October, 2021

Recall of Chen Po-wei (Taichung 2)

October 24, 2021

Chen Po-wei 陳柏惟 (Taiwan Statebuilding Party, TSP) was recalled from his seat in Taichung 2nd district yesterday. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to each cut and thrust of this recall, so I can’t comment a lot on the strategic decisions of the pro- and anti-recall efforts. However, I will say that this incident has neatly displayed many of the flaws in the recall law. I have argued that the current recall law invites big parties to bully small parties, makes it easier to recall someone than to elect them in the first place, and encourages losers to continually try to overturn election results, even without a major change in public opinion. Check, check, and check. The fact that Chen will lose his seat is a clear indication that the electoral law must be reformed to make recalls much more difficult.

The recall law currently requires that the yes side exceed 25% of eligible voters and that yes notes must outnumber no votes. Taichung 2 has 294,976 eligible voters, so the yes side needed at least 73,744 votes.

  Valid %Eligible %
Yes (recall)77,89951.526.4
No (don’t recall)73,43348.524.9

It was a very close result by both standards. The yes side beat the no side by fewer than 5,000 votes, and they only exceeded the 25% threshold by 1.4%.

This is not much different from the results of the general election. In January 2020, Chen won a very close race against KMT incumbent Yan Kuan-heng. Yen played a leading role in this recall election, and he is expected to try to regain his seat in the coming by-election. I don’t think it is much of a stretch at all to suggest this recall was an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result.

  Valid %Win
Yen (KMT)107,76648.9 
Chen (TSP)112,83951.1*

I believe that recalls should be reserved for extraordinary cases in which an incumbent clearly loses large amounts of previous support. Going from 51-49% to 48-51% doesn’t strike me as a massive shift in public opinion. This is more like the kind of shift that you get several times a month on one direction or the other depending on the headlines of the day. Relitigating elections every time there is a 3% shift is a recipe for chaos.

It isn’t obvious why this is a stronger indication of a public mandate than the previous result. Why should 77,899 votes be more powerful than the 112,839 votes that were cast to elect Chen? This may have been more of a mobilization victory than a change in public opinion. Yen may simply have mobilized 73.3% of his previous support, while Chen could only mobilize 65.1% of his. It wouldn’t be surprising if Yen had (as pretty much everyone believes) a significant advantage in grassroots organization that allowed him to mobilize more of his supporters at any odd time in the middle of the election cycle. However, let’s keep in mind that over a fourth of the people who voted against Chen the first time neglected to vote against him this time. We certainly don’t have any reason to believe that many people who voted for Chen in 2020 changed their minds and voted against him this time.

I know that some will object that Chen and his supporters should have mobilized more to defend his seat. However, I believe that the burden of proof should be on the side trying to overturn the previous result, not on the incumbent. At any rate, Chen demonstrated that he maintains most of his previous support. The recall side did not demonstrate any massive change in public opinion.

A successful recall should provide a clear repudiation of a previous electoral result. This recall failed to do that. It was much easier to defeat Chen Po-wei in a recall than in the general election. That is an institutional failure.

KMT caucus brawls because … why?

October 4, 2021

On Friday, the KMT plunged the Legislative Yuan into chaos. Premier Su was scheduled to give his semiannual report to the legislature on the government’s performance and future agenda. However, the KMT occupied the benches where the government ministers are supposed to sit, overturned the podium that Su was supposed to speak at, ripped out a few microphones, and banged their fists on the desks. The DPP chose not to resist this action, and the presiding officer called a recess. No business was conducted on Friday.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the past few years researching parliamentary brawls, and I’m scratching my head at the KMT’s actions. They don’t make much sense to me. Six years into life in the opposition, the KMT still hasn’t figured out how to be an effective opposition party.

In partisan parliamentary brawls, the first rule for the opposition party is that you must have a clear story to explain yourself to the public. Almost all partisan brawls are initiated by an opposition that wants to resist something the majority wants to do. The opposition should want the story to be about the government’s unacceptable plans, not the violence itself. The government always tries to paint the opposition as violent, anti-democratic, and unreasonable. They are, in fact, taking a violent action in violation of the normal, legal procedures. The opposition’s challenge is to persuade the public that the issue was so compelling that they needed to bring it to everyone’s attention in the most dramatic way possible, they needed to stop it at all costs, that the planned agenda was even more undemocratic than the violation of the legislative rules, or something similar. The brawling makes people look, but the opposition party needs them to quickly shift their focus from the physical confrontation to the controversial issue.

So what was the issue in Friday’s brawl? Well, that’s the problem. The KMT isn’t really putting out a coherent story. They are complaining about lots of things, and those things don’t really fit together.

I think the KMT wants us to believe that they are angry about failures in the quarantine policy that allowed Covid to sneak into the country in April. Great! That’s a governance failure. This is exactly the time for the legislature to exercise government oversight. What the KMT should do is get the premier’s speech over as soon as possible (and no one ever pays much attention to these speeches), and then spend the next week or two in intense interpellation sessions. Ask pointed questions showing exactly how the policy was flawed from the beginning, implementation was lousy, or both. The news will eat up these confrontational interactions between attacking legislators and government ministers making feeble excuses. The KMT will demonstrate that the DPP is terrible at governance, and it would be much better. Interpellation is a great weapon for the opposition!

What the KMT probably shouldn’t do is waste all the legislative time to ensure that there is no time left for interpellation. But that’s what they are doing. They have already wasted three legislative days (ie: a week and a half) without Su giving his speech. What always happens in these cases is that, since the legislature has to move on to other items (such as the national budget), they change from oral interpellations to written interpellations. Written documents in bureaucratic language are boring. I have never seen a media story on something from a written interpellation. If there was a governance failure, this is the best way to make sure people sleep through it.

Instead of ruthlessly dissecting the governance failure for all to see, the KMT has simply assumed that everyone agrees there was obviously a massive governance failure so there is no need to present the evidence. In fact, the government has been pushing back against this narrative, providing arguments that the outbreak was not necessarily a result of the 3+11 quarantine policy for airline workers. Something clearly went wrong, but it’s not clear exactly what that was or even whether it was a governance failure. The KMT doesn’t seem interested in these details, though. The government can continue to present its side unchallenged.

The KMT has insisted that Su should apologize before giving his report. In fact, Su already apologized to the nation back in June, but I guess the KMT wants an apology to the legislature. This seems like something they could repeatedly demand from him in interpellation while they point out his failures. It’s a shame there is no interpellation on the schedule right now.

I’m writing this as if been the clear KMT message all along has been the failure of the quarantine policy. It hasn’t. If you look at the protest signs they were holding up on the floor, you see a lot about procedural justice and nothing about quarantines or the virus. Wait, this is really about procedural justice?? What?? How??

立法院會1日預定對行政院長蘇貞昌施政報告繼續質詢,但國民黨立委一早占領議場官員席,院會開始後不久推倒官員備詢台,並舉牌表示「抗議中」,使議事持續空轉;民進黨立委則舉看板呼籲「國家需要理性監督」、「報告備詢正面對決」。中央社記者施宗暉攝 110年10月1日

Procedural justice is a theme in a lot of parliamentary brawls. Typically, the government wants to do something, and the minority employs its full bag of procedural dilatory tools to grind things to a halt. They make long speeches, introduce loads of time-wasting amendments, introduce lots of other bills that have to be dealt with first, refuse to confirm the previous day’s minutes, and so on. Majorities often deal with this intransigence by changing the rules. For example, instead of voting on each item individually, they allow a single package vote; they rule amendments out of order; they change the agenda order to move their bill to the front of the line; they allow voice votes instead of time-consuming roll call votes; and on and on. When the rules allow the minority to stall, the majority can always just change the rules. Of course, the minority always screams about this, complaining that democratic legitimacy demands that agenda items go through established procedures and be placed under intense scrutiny. And sometimes, they are so furious with the majorities’ behavior that they launch a brawl. As with most arguments, there is some truth to this idea that the rules must be respected, but it is not an inviolable democratic principle. Minorities have rights, but so do majorities. Legally, the overriding principle is usually that legislative bodies have jurisdiction over their internal workings, so any decision that is supported by a majority is considered legitimate. Public opinion, however, is not always persuaded by this argument. In the public arena, arguments about procedural justice are essentially accusations that the other side is breaking the rules and isn’t playing fair. Winning this sort of public argument can have significant political consequences. (See: Sunflower Movement).

OK. So why is the KMT complaining about procedural justice in this particular case? Uh, no one seems to be explaining that part. As far as I can tell, they are just screaming “procedural justice” without anything further. It’s not as if the DPP changed the rules to ram through a controversial bill. The controversy at hand is that Premier Su is scheduled to give a report, and the KMT is trying to block it. The KMT is the party violating the normal procedures, not the DPP. The KMT has effectively stopped the session from happening, so the DPP hasn’t even had an opportunity to change the rules. Eventually, they will change the rules to expediate or skip this speech and change to written interpellations. (These are steps that KMT majorities pioneered decades ago.) However, you can’t scream that the government is avoiding its constitutional mandate to face interpellation when you were the one preventing them from doing that. “They didn’t follow the procedures because we blocked them from following the procedures. This is procedural injustice!” This just doesn’t make sense.

If you really want to get down into the weeds, there are two things the KMT might be complaining about. First, they introduced several hundred bills that the DPP refused to consider before Su’s report. There were apparently not serious bills – about a fourth were demands that Su or cabinet ministers should publicly apologize. Good luck making that the centerpiece of your public argument. Second, on Tuesday (when there were also some scuffles and the KMT also blocked Su from delivering his report) the KMT accused the DPP of abusing its power to open the front door ten seconds too late. At 7:00am, the KMT was massed in front of the front door, ready to rush in and occupy the podium. According to the KMT, the staff opened the back door promptly on time, allowing DPP members there to get in first. The staff explained that they had tried to open both doors at the same time, but the front door swings outward and it was blocked by the KMT legislators crowded against it. Ok, let me stop here. When you make an accusation of abuse of power, you probably want to talk about some massive corruption scandal, extending executive power into the judiciary, police harassment, or something like that. Opening a door ten seconds too slow is hardly an egregious abuse of power. Moreover, think about what they were saying. In normal times, the doors open, members slowly walk in, sit down, and then nothing happens for an hour because official business doesn’t start for another hour. Ten seconds is irrelevant. The KMT is saying, “We were planning to break the rules by disrupting the normal proceedings, and you made it slightly more inconvenient for us to break the rules. Abuse of power!! Procedural injustice!!”

The KMT had some other themes. One sign said, “No truth, no interpellation” 沒有真相沒有質詢。 Someone needs to explain to them that interpellation is the institutional mechanism by which minorities can force the government to divulge the truth. Other signs said things like “the Legislative Yuan has become the Legislative Bureau” 立法院便立法局 (ie: a government rubber stamp) and a legislator complained to a reporter that “democracy is dead.” The KMT banged on desks, repeating President Tsai’s statement that when the government doesn’t listen to the people, people have the right to bang on desks. In case you think I’m paying too much attention to the signs the KMT caucus was holding him, let me assure you that I read through several media reports and watched several TV news clips looking for a coherent and consistent argument. I made a special point of looking for United Daily News stories to see if a friendlier source would let them present their case. I didn’t see a coherent KMT argument. A procedural justice here, a slow door here, a democracy is dead here, a desk banging there. There was shockingly little about the 3+11, and they often seemed to forget even that they wanted Su to apologize.

It seems to me the most honest sign was the one that simply said “We are protesting” 抗議中 They don’t seem to know exactly what they are angry about, and it doesn’t really matter to them. They know they are mad at the government; they think you should also be mad at the government; and they don’t think they need to explain why. It feels like they didn’t even bother to print any new signs for this event. They just picked up a few signs left over from previous demonstrations and reused them without questioning whether they were appropriate this time.

Another telling sign was the one saying, “opposed to unconstitutional acts and chaos” 反對違憲亂紀. Leaving aside the problem that there is no constitutional question involved in this case, the mention of chaos is notable. Remember, the KMT caucus had just overturned a podium, ripped out microphones, and utterly disrupted the normal workings of the legislature. Yet, they are claiming to be against chaos?? In fact, “chaos” is a common term in current KMT discourse. They are constantly talking about the need to stop chaos and restore order 撥亂反正。This is not really about “chaos,” at least as most people understand the term. As a smart guy sympathetic to the KMT explained to me, they want to go back to the good old days. Chaos means now; order means then. I suspect the halcyon days of order in their minds are the CCK era. Back then, they were respected and government was run by reasonable people. It was more democratic too, since the KMT always won elections, had an unassailable grip on power, and could use state coercion to silence any rabble who caused trouble. Ah, the good old days! It all sounds a bit like Trumpian nostalgia for the good old days of the 1950s, when Blacks knew their place, there weren’t many Browns, it was ok to knock your wife around, no one was gay, everyone was Christian, and you could smoke anywhere. MAGA!

The problem for the KMT is that this muddled message of vague fury doesn’t have a very large audience in today’s Taiwan. Most people don’t want to see a general rebellion inside the legislature. That is almost always the case, but it is especially true right now when the government has reasonably good approval ratings and faces some very specific upcoming governing challenges, such as vaccination policy, economic stimulus, and Chinese military incursions. Now is the time for competent governance, not general revolution. The KMT failed to focus on a single, easy to understand, easily defensible theme for their brawl. Instead, what most people will remember from this episode is the violence itself. The KMT is telling people that it is a violent, unreasonable, kneejerk opposition party. There is a market for that, but it isn’t a large market. Even within the blue camp, there are going to be a lot of people who aren’t happy with legislative violence, especially if they don’t know why it is happening. That’s why the biggest beneficiary of the KMT’s action last week is probably going to be the TPP. The TPP and NPP used the episode to complain that they wanted to responsibly and rationally perform legislative oversight of the executive branch, as is their constitutional duty. Unfortunately, the KMT’s antics had stripped them of this right. The TPP’s electoral market increasingly overlaps with the KMT’s, so blue camp voters disgusted with the chaos in the legislature might be tempted to drift over to the TPP. To put it more bluntly, the KMT essentially screamed that any wavering supporters interested in “rational politics” should go try the TPP. Ko Wen-je should send the KMT caucus a thank-you note.

The KMT’s behavior last week was self-indulgent, undisciplined, flailing, and self-defeating. A smart party carefully chooses its battles. This was a stupid choice, and they fought it badly.