Archive for the ‘government posts’ Category

Musings on the old and new premiers

September 11, 2017

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.


technocrats and electoral reform

January 17, 2012

In the aftermath of the elections, everyone is scrambling to determine which seats are empty and who should fill them.  I don’t have much to say now about those choices except that most media reports suggest the new Premier and Vice Premier will be Chen Chong 陳沖 and Chiang Yi-hua 江宜華 (currently Vice Premier and Interior Minister), a couple of technocrats.  I want politicians!  Look, I understand that the Ma is worried about the international financial markets, but didn’t he learn his lesson before with Liu Chao-hsuan 劉兆玄?  The Premier needs to be good at political communication, not just good at understanding public policy.  [Frozen Garlic is probably the only voice arguing for more 政客!]


Speaker Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 made my day today by suggesting that electoral reform might be a good idea.  I love this guy!  He is worried by the disproportionality of the current system, the fact that it crushes small parties, and, most of all, that the blue areas are becoming bluer and the green areas are becoming greener.  He probably feels this personally, since the KMT incumbent in his hometown got swept away in the local DPP tide.

As I wrote a couple of months ago, I absolutely hate the current system.  Almost anything would be better, including going back to the old system.  The DPP’s preferred option is a MMP (mixed member proportional; for details, see the linked essay) system.  However, after watching the DPP’s debacle in determining its party list this year, I don’t think an MMP system would be the best choice for Taiwan?  What would be the best choice?  I believe an Open List Proportional Representation system would fit the bill almost perfectly.

I’m not going to get too excited, though.  While the Liberty Times report was very positive, the United Daily News report was much more reserved.  Lots of people in the KMT like the current system since they believe it works for their party and for them personally.  As they [reasonably] point out, the DPP was the party that insisted on the change in 2005.  Now that the DPP has lost a couple of elections under the system, it has decided that maybe this system isn’t so great.  In other words, you got what you wished for, so now you have to live with it.  [I will never forgive Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 for this disastrous electoral system.]


One thing the DPP has discussed is asking the Council of Grand Justices to rule whether the current electoral system violates the constitutional principle of each vote being equal.  I don’t like this idea at all.  The electoral system is written in the constitution.  It can’t be unconstitutional if it is in the constitution.  I certainly don’t want unelected judges to decide which part of the constitution is more constitutional than some other part of the constitution.  If you want to change the constitution, don’t take the lazy route and rely on judges.  That would set a very dangerous precedent.  The solution has to come through the political process of amending the constitution.

odds and ends

March 30, 2010

A few unrelated thoughts.

Premier Wu Dunyi 吳敦義 seems to have settled into his job.  During his first couple of months with American beef and the like, it seemed to me that he wouldn’t last a full year.  The last two or three months, though, he seems much more in command.  I’m moving him from zombie status (effectively dead but still stumbling around) up to vampire status (he has arisen from his coffin, dressed up nicely, and has an outside shot at seducing the beautiful electorate).  (Maybe I should lay off the analogies.)

I watched an hourlong one on one interview with Yang Qiuxing 楊秋興 on TV last night.  I came away with the impression of Yang as a sincere, hardworking, and simple guy who knows everything about agriculture and not much about anything else.  All he could talk about was farmers, farming, growing up on a farm, marketing farm produce, and how ECFA would be bad for farmers.  Fine, but aren’t there a few people in Greater Kaohsiung who are not farmers?  (It reminded me of Bob Kerry running for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992: his answer to every question, from nuclear arsenals to education policy to tax reform was health care, health care, health care.)  The other thing that struck me about the interview was the three minutes in which he talked about how intense the primary campaign has been.  He downplayed it completely, saying he didn’t think it was that bad at all, that he was just providing information to the party central office about all those abuses, and that he and Chen Ju 陳菊 would certainly cooperate to support the winner.  There must have been a serious backlash against his earlier tactics.  Also, Cai Yingwen’s 蔡英文 gambit — telling him to cool it — has paid off.  I think he is changing courses because the strident strategy didn’t work, but she will get some credit for refereeing and keeping the competition under control.

Liu Quanzhong 劉銓忠 has announced he is running for Taichung mayor.  Liu is a legislator with decades of political experience, the younger brother of former legislative speaker Liu Songfan 劉松藩, and, most importantly, one of the most senior leaders in the Taichung County Red Faction.  This means that both the Red and Black factions have someone contesting the nomination.  It is still nearly unthinkable that anyone other than Jason Hu 胡志強 is going to win the nomination, so why are they fighting an unwinnable fight?  I think I have overlooked how becoming a direct municipality is going to affect local factions.  Control of budgets is the lifeblood of local factions.  Currently, they prosper when they control the county executive, and they build grassroots strength by winning township mayors, agricultural and irrigation cooperatives, and county assembly seats.  The two biggest pillars, county executives and township mayors, will be disappearing after this year.  Of course, if they could win the Greater Taichung mayorship with its enormous budget, all would be peachy.  So even though the odds are slim, there is probably tremendous grassroots pressure to try.  From that angle, Ma would be foolish to give in.  He has a chance to end the Faustian bargain with Taichung local factions.  There might be a cost in votes in 2012, but he will never have a better chance to deal the local factions a fatal blow.

Why did Wang have to go?

March 12, 2010

Minister of Justice Wang Qingfeng 王清峰 was forced to resign over her refusal to carry out executions; she is against the death penalty.  Public opinion is firmly in favor of retaining the death penalty, and a large number of KMT legislators, the Premier, and the President all took the position that, until the law is changed, the Minister of Justice must carry out whatever sentences the judicial system produces, including the death penalty.

I do not think this episode has very much to do with the death penalty or some principle of carrying out the law.  I think this is all about politics.  For some reason (and I’m not clear what this is), Wang was not being a team player.  I think the president ordered a purge, and it has been orchestrated brilliantly.

Let’s review the episode.  This whole thing started a couple of days ago when KMT legislator Wu Yusheng 吳育昇 brought it up in an interpellation.  Wu is one of President Ma’s 馬英九 closest associates in the legislature; he was part of Ma’s “little cabinet” while Ma was Taipei City mayor.  Wang clarified her position the next day, setting out a very strong line.  She is not going to sign any execution orders.  Yesterday, a large number of KMT legislators held press conferences criticizing her position and calling for her to resign.  Actress Bai Bingbing 白冰冰 was a featured guest and outspoken critic in these press conferences.[i] The United Daily News also had a poll, featured on the front page, that showed 74% support the death penalty and 51% thought Wang should resign.  After insisting that no Minister of Justice anywhere in the world had been forced to resign because of opposition to the death penalty, Wang changed her mind and offered her resignation last night.  Premier Wu 吳敦義 took all of seven minutes to decide to accept the resignation.

Wang is against the death penalty for human rights reasons, and she believes it is a worldwide trend to abolish the death penalty.[ii] As such, she has not signed any orders to carry out executions since she became Minister of Justice two years ago.  Now, this has hardly been a radical position before the past couple of days.  While Ma signed off on dozens of executions while he was Justice Minister in the mid-1990s, he has also stated that he is against the death penalty and would like to see it abolished.  The Minister of Justice from 2005-2008 didn’t sign any execution orders for the same reason as Wang is giving, so there was presumably already a backlog of people waiting to be executed.  In 2008, when Ma appointed her, he apparently wasn’t too anxious to have all those people executed.  And while the government spokesperson yesterday insisted that she couldn’t simply commute the sentences, that there was a proper procedure for that.  In fact she was not actually commuting sentences; she was merely delaying the executions.  These people all still carry death sentences, and they can be executed tomorrow if the paperwork is signed.  So that was a nice sleight of hand by the government spokesman.

Still, the most important reason I don’t think this whole episode is really about the death penalty is that no one cares about the death penalty.  It simply isn’t an important issue.  Sure, 74% are for it, but we have opinions on lots of things that we don’t really care about.  You could also do a poll on whether motorcycle helmet laws should be enforced more strictly, whether the Central Cross-Island Highway should be re-opened, or the Jilong City government should take over management of Jilong Harbor.  You would get some distribution of opinions on all of them, but none of them really matter in the big picture.  These opinions simply aren’t as important as opinions about Taiwan’s relations with China, the extent and execution of disaster relief after natural disasters, how to fund universal health care, food safety, corruption, and the other dominant questions in Taiwanese politics.  Other than Bai Bingbing and a handful of activists on either side, there simply aren’t many people who think that the death penalty is an important issue.

So why was Wang forced out?  Given the carefully orchestrated events, which have the KMT leadership’s fingerprints all over them, I can only concluded that President Ma, Premier Wu, and/or Secretary-General Jin 金浦聰 decided that they wanted her out.  I think this probably starts with Jin, who then got Ma to sign off on it.  Jin was probably also the puppetmaster.

Wang has never been a party insider.  She is a social activist, who made her name as a lawyer with great character, honesty, and morals.  She was one of the main figures pushing for justice for comfort women, and she was Chen Lu-an’s 陳履安 running mate in the 1996 presidential election.  Chen’s campaign was based on his moral authority.  In 2008, Ma tapped Wang as Justice Minister and got a figure whose moral standing was beyond reproach.  I think this is part of Ma’s pro-governance, anti-politics philosophy.  If you simply put good people into office, they will make good policies.  The flaw in this philosophy is that (good, honest, incorruptible) people disagree (for honest, moral, and rational reasons).  Just because the official is a good person does not mean that he or she will produce policies that you think are good.  I think a political logic is far more effective than this governance logic.  In a political logic, you bind people together to a common platform by means of a party (which needs the platform to make mass appeals and construct a loyal support base).  Any party member, regardless of their personal morals, is then bound to implement a policy that is consistent with the party’s interests.[iii] My guess is that Ma is slowly coming around to understanding the importance of party politics.  The fact that he has to face the possibility of losing in 2012 (never really a possibility in 2002 or 2008) probably has something to do with that.  Wang was probably acting as a non-partisan Minister of Justice, not as a KMT Minister of Justice.  (Note: This is the weak point in my argument.  I don’t know what they would have been dissatisfied with.)  With important elections coming up over the next two years, they probably wanted a team player at the helm of the Justice Department.

If the scenario that I am laying out is correct, then the most important thing about this episode has nothing to do with the death penalty.  Rather, Ma is finally consolidating power.  He started his term by granting power to lots of people.  These were grants, not delegations.  He simply gave people power and let them exercise it as they saw fit.  He did not delegate power with specific instructions to follow or goals to pursue.  He did not keep a tight rein on that power and withdraw it whenever someone did something he didn’t like.  The first year of his administration was marked by Lien Chan 連戰, Wu Boxiong 吳伯雄, and various other KMT figures running amok.  I think Ma realized that this does not work and is slowly grabbing the power back.  Becoming party chair was important, but bringing Jin Pucong back as his hatchet man was more important.  Slowly, he seems to be transforming the KMT into a one-headed beast, something it has not been since the late-1990s.  This bodes well for Ma’s re-election prospects.  Unfortunately for him, this process is really two years too late.  When he was elected in 2008, Ma was far more popular than his party, and he could have demanded that everyone follow him.  That Ma Yingjeou would have been able to concentrate power and do anything he wanted.  Now that his popularity has waned, he will not be able to consolidate power in the same way.  He also will not be able to demand that his party follow him.  To give an illustration of what this means in practical terms, imagine how the American beef issue would have played out in 2008 with power concentrated around Ma.  He would have demanded that KMT legislators vote as instructed, and they would not have dared to oppose him.  That is no longer the case and won’t be the case even if he continues to consolidate power.  His window has closed quite a bit.

There is also a certain irony in this episode.  A little more than a decade ago, the KMT forced another Justice Minister out because he had been cracking down on vote-buying among (mostly KMT) county assembly members (and corruption and organized crime more generally).  The KMT could not stomach this attack on its grassroots machine, and demanded the Justice Minister be replaced with someone who would be more of a team player.  That idealistic Justice Minister was, of course, Ma Yingjeou.

[i] Bai’s daughter was murdered in sensational kidnapping case in 1997, and she was insistent that the kidnappers be executed.  (They were, eventually.)  There’s a lot more to this story, but that’s a different essay.

[ii] This is a terrible defense of her position.  You have to get a little more specific than that.  Some vague reference to human rights is never going to win a public debate.

[iii] If you haven’t guessed, Frozen Garlic has a strong bias toward party politics.  This little paragraph doesn’t even begin to explore the reasons for that bias.