Politics & Law

Legislature power grab would have consequences

10 April, 2024

The pan-Blue camp is calling for increased powers for the legislature. Besides facing a constitutional challenge, its proposals, if adopted, may reduce executive efficiency and judicial oversight and ultimately prove short-sighted.


By Brian Hioe

The Kuomintang (KMT) has embraced calls for wide-sweeping changes to Taiwan’s governmental balance of powers of late, with a number of proposals advanced by the KMT legislative caucus to strengthen the powers that legislators have.


In particular, the KMT hopes for legislators to be granted the powers to summon and question government officials, members of the military, police, and legal entities. Those who refuse to comply with questioning would face fines of up to NT$300,000 for contempt of the legislature. This would also allow legislators to conduct investigations of these individuals or groups.


Why the proposal?

Since the start of the current legislation session, the first major conflict between the KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) involved the KMT calling for Premier Chen Chien-jen to the legislature for questioning over a number of food adulteration scandals that Taiwan has seen in past months. This was originally over the detection of the chemical cimbuterol in pork products from the Taiwan Sugar Corporation.


When Chen did eventually make this report, this only took place after a period of back-and-forth between the KMT and DPP about whether he would appear. The KMT then boycotted Chen’s appearance at the legislature.


Likewise, during a subsequent question-and-answer session in March, DPP legislators criticized KMT Legislative Yuan president Han Kuo-yu for cutting short the time that would have been given to DPP legislators to question Chen. Indeed, the DPP was likely aiming to try and undercut the KMT’s claims to be pursuing transparent governance in calling for Chen’s questioning, in suggesting that the KMT had no interest in allowing the DPP to question a politician of their own political camp.


The KMT likely hoped to make the legislative interrogation of Chen into a major public scandal that it could leverage on, especially in light of how issues of food safety have long been sensitive for the Taiwanese public. This may be what the KMT hopes to accomplish through powers to summon government officials from the Tsai administration and the incoming Lai administration for questioning. This would be in the hopes of making such questioning into political theatre that the KMT could leverage on.


Calls by the KMT to revive the Special Investigation Division

The KMT’s recent proposals aimed at expanding legislative power–of which there have been seventeen to date–come out of a number of preceding moves by the party. Indeed, in the past months since the start of the legislative session, the KMT has also called for reviving the Special Investigative Division (SID) of the Ministry of Justice.


The SID was historically used to carry out investigations into political corruption. However, this has proved controversial, in that the SID was used to specifically investigate DPP politicians in the past. This included corruption charges against former president Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president in Taiwanese history who was jailed after the end of his presidential term.


Likewise, in September 2013, Ker Chien-ming of the DPP was wiretapped by the SID over communications with then-majority speaker Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT at a time when President Ma Ying-jeou was hoping to push Wang out of the party. This was seen as an instance in which Ma sought to crack down on opposing views from within his own party, seeing as Wang was considered the leader of the comparatively pro-localization faction of the KMT, and willing to use the police to target members of opposing political parties. At the time, ironically enough, the KMT was accused of using its control over executive power to trample over the legislature.


Such controversies led President Tsai Ing-wen to dissolve the SID after taking office. Yet the KMT currently calls for the reinstatement of the SID, but importantly its subordination to the authority of the Legislative Yuan. The proposal to expand the powers of the legislature proves similar, then, in effectively giving legislators the powers that prosecutors currently possess to carry out investigations.


Calls by the pan-Blue camp to shift to a cabinet-style system

At the same time, these proposals also take place after calls embraced by the pan-Blue camp to embrace a cabinet-style system of governance in which appointments of government ministers would have to be approved by the legislature and the legislature would have expanded powers to question the premier.


The idea was introduced late into the election cycle by Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who may have been aiming to have a distinctive programme of reform for his campaign. Still, the idea was embraced by the KMT as part of its efforts to negotiate Ko into a political alliance that would entail a joint presidential ticket.


The vagueness of the proposal was then criticized by the DPP, seeing as a cabinet-style system in some countries means that direct presidential elections do not take place and the president is chosen by the legislature. Yet the pan-Blue camp as a whole may have been aiming to strengthen legislative power in recognition that the pan-Blue camp would not likely win the presidency, but would continue to be able to run viable legislative campaigns.


An adaptation to political weakness

It remains to be seen how the KMT’s proposals for legislative change will work out, then. For one, if the KMT intends to outflank the DPP through pan-Blue control of the legislature, the KMT cannot risk alienating the TPP as a political ally, since the KMT needs TPP votes to pass legislation. The TPP would likely benefit from the proposal, not only in terms of strengthening its bargaining power with the KMT, but because its own main foothold in political power would be through the legislature.


Otherwise, the DPP has criticized the KMT’s proposals as unconstitutional, and threatening the stable operations of government. The DPP has emphasized that it will seek a constitutional interpretation over the matter, as the proposal would also reduce judicial power. It may be that the three primary branches of government will come into conflict over the proposal.


Still, the KMT’s proposals about expanding the powers of the Legislative Yuan are a short-term adaptation to the current circumstances where the pan-Blue camp has a narrow three-seat advantage over the pan-Green camp in the legislature. If in a future election cycle, the pan-Green camp once again gains control of the legislature, the proposal could backfire on the KMT.


Moreover, it seems unlikely that the proposal would improve oversight between the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. After all, the KMT is likely to frame the DPP as corrupt on political issues. Stark partisanship between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps has led the KMT to accuse the DPP of being linked to organized crime, telephone scam groups in past years, as well as only making certain policy decisions because of political corruption. The latter is alleged about everything from the DPP’s efforts to promote renewable energy to the development of Taiwan’s domestically manufactured vaccine, Medigen.


As such, the KMT may simply use expanded legislative powers for scorched earth tactics against the DPP, intended to prevent the DPP from getting any part of its agenda through. Ultimately, the KMT would probably be hoping to hit upon a political corruption case on such a scale as to replicate the political downfall of Chen Shui-bian, which led to the DPP’s ouster from political power in 2008 in such a manner that seemed to preclude any kind of political comeback. Hence the focus on allegations of DPP corruption and proposals to revive institutions that played a role in Chen’s downfall.


Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

Disclaimer: Euroview articles are written by freelance contributors. The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the ECCT's members, board or secretariat.

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