Hey, there’s a bit of election news in Taiwan. As part of the current battle over marriage equality, there are efforts to recall DPP floor leader Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘.
[As an aside, I haven’t paid particularly close attention to Taiwanese politics over the past ten months. Rather, I have watched developments in Europe and America, often rapt in horror. We seem to be on the cusp of a fundamental shakeup in the international order, and, in my darkest nightmares, I worry that a democratic implosion is right around the corner. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or terrifying that Taiwan is preoccupied with “normal” political controversies, such as how to schedule vacation days, blissfully unconcerned that the rest of the world looks like it might be about to go up in flames. Is this oasis of calm one of the few sane spots in the world right now, or is it sticking its fingers in its ears and willfully ignoring the looming storm?]
The Taiwan Law Blog speculates that I do not support the efforts to recall Ker Chien-ming. That is correct, even though I support marriage equality. I explained my general dislike of recalls in the post the Taiwan Law Blog links to, and I stand by that reasoning. When the votes are counted, the election should stop. The battle over who occupies the seat should be settled until the next regularly scheduled election.
Recalls have a role, but they should only be used as a last-ditch resort when an elected official has fundamentally violated the implicit contract with the voters. I do not believe Ker Chien-ming has fundamentally violated his contract with his voters. When he ran, I do not remember him ever taking a public stance on marriage equality. His campaign was about representing the DPP and supporting Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda in the legislature. Marriage equality was merely one, very small part of that agenda. No matter what he does on this issue, it is hard to imagine it constituting a fundamental betrayal of his positions.
What do I think would be justifiable grounds to launch a recall? To give one example, I think South Korean President Park has fundamentally violated her contract with the voters. Massive corruption, allowing an unelected and unappointed spiritual advisor to make major decisions, and all the rest of it were clearly not what the Korean voters had in mind when they voted for her.
To go back to Ker’s case, since Ker’s central appeal was being a good party soldier, if he suddenly emerged as an intransigent opponent of Tsai’s agenda and plotted with the KMT to thwart her proposals, a recall would be justifiable. If we confine the hypothetical to the issue of marriage equality, if Ker had made support for marriage equality a central issue in his campaign but then had decided to throw his support behind a separate law that did not grant full equality, I think that would probably still be defensible and not justify a recall. After all, it is eminently defensible to compromise for 50% or 75% of your original goal. If he did all that, and then we further learned that he had accepted a massive bribe from an opponent of marriage equality to change his position, then a recall would probably be justified. In that case, Ker would have ignored his voters’ demands in favor of the briber’s demands. Ker’s current behavior is nowhere near these thresholds, and I hope the recall effort fizzles out.
The Taiwan Law Blog suggests that, instead of trying to recall Ker, perhaps marriage equality activists should campaign for him to lose his spot as the DPP party whip. I think he and many others are making the same mistake that President Ma made when he tried to purge Speaker Wang in 2013. They are imagining that the party floor leader is pursuing his own agenda.
In fact, what successful floor leaders do is to help the party rank-and-file get what they want. Sometimes, this means that the floor leader has to take some public heat in order to shield the backbenchers from criticism. In the American case, the classic example is from budgetary politics. A house member knows that a particular spending item should be cut but it is also very popular back home. The backbencher needs the speaker to arrange the agenda so that he can tell his voters that he fought hard to keep the item in the budget but he just couldn’t overcome opposition from everyone else. Sometimes, the legislator will even single out the speaker for criticism, and a good speaker understands what is happening and facilitates it. In 2013, President Ma blamed Speaker Wang for not pushing the Services Trade Agreement strongly enough. Ma should have realized that Wang was protecting KMT legislators who did not want to defend support for particular clauses to their voters.
In today’s case, Ker is probably protecting DPP legislators as well. Most DPP legislators have publicly come out in support of marriage equality, probably because they cannot afford to alienate progressive activists and voters. They certainly do not want to alienate young people. (Ask Hillary Clinton if alienating young voters has any costs.) However, Taiwanese society has hardly reached a consensus in support of marriage equality. The surveys I have seen suggest that support and opposition are about evenly split. I am a bit skeptical of these support levels. While elites and young people have mostly come to a consensus on gay marriage, I suspect the rest of society has not. To put it simply, I doubt that Taiwan has wrestled with this issue enough yet. To too many people, homosexuality is simply an idea rather than an everyday reality of many friends and family. There are still a lot of moms and dads my age or older who grew up with the unchallenged assumption that homosexuality was weird and/or wrong, and you can’t simply tell them that they have been prejudiced all their lives. They will need some time and a lot of discussion before they come around. Moving too quickly could cause a backlash, and I suspect that many DPP legislators intuitively grasp that not everyone in society is comfortable with rewriting the social rules just yet. If there were actually overwhelming support for marriage equality in the DPP caucus, Ker would make it happen quickly. He hasn’t been re-elected party whip time and time again because he ignores the rank-and-file’s wishes. If he is stalling or pushing some compromise package, it is almost certainly because they are asking him to do it. Moreover, like any good floor leader, he is taking the public criticism so that they won’t have to.
So what do I suggest for marriage equality activists? Ker Chien-ming is not your problem. Your problem is that you haven’t yet thoroughly sold Taiwanese society on the idea of marriage equality. To put it another way, the DPP caucus looks like it would like to change the law, but activists haven’t done enough work changing minds among ordinary voters to make DPP legislators feel comfortable taking this step. Rather than bullying or threatening Ker Chien-ming, activists should be focusing on broader society, explaining why marriage equality is a good idea that everyone can support. The good news is that the marriage equality side has good arguments and, with a lot of discussion and persuasion, should be able to produce a stronger consensus in society. When that happens, resistance in the legislature will melt away.