Category Archives: Taiwan

Taiwan – Softly, Softly, The President Navigates DPP and Cross-Strait Relations

Presidents who are not ceremonial executives generally come under scrutiny following the first 100-day honeymoon after inauguration, when the policy horizon is no longer paved with unencumbered goodwill from the electorate, legislator, or international community. President Tsai Ing-wen is no exception. Indeed, as the executive with majority party support of the erstwhile opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the legislature, the first woman elected to the presidency in Taiwan is likely to be closely watched to see if she is able to implement her policy agenda. That such success evaded the former president elected from the DPP, President Chen Shui-bian, whose agenda was stonewalled by the Pan-Blue majority in the legislature, likely compounds interest and attention on President Tsai. Yet, having a legislative-majority support comes with challenges: in particular, China is keeping close watch on if, when, or how the executive and legislature in Taiwan may adopt policies that veer away from the “one China” 1992 consensus. There is, then, much to appreciate in President Tsai’s ability to maintain her steadfastness that balances the demands of some of the core constituencies of the DPP on the one hand, and the demands and pressures of China on the other.

The DPP, like most parties, comprises factions, and a core bloc in the party favours independence. President Tsai’s previous run as presidential candidate for the DPP in 2012 drew on this core, and she lost out to former President Ma Jing-yeou in that race. The second time around in the 2016 elections, President Tsai was careful to apply the lessons learned: she has been steadfast in maintaining a cautiously-worded stance regarding relations with China that acknowledges the importance of the 1992 meeting that gave rise to the “one China” consensus but without explicitly recognising the one China principle.

The moderates in her party support the delicate stance: in the July 2016 party congress, a motion was made to remove the objective of Taiwan independence contained in Article 1 of the party’s charter. The new resolution, if passed, will change Article 1 to read: “. . . it is the party’s objective to establish cross-strait status quo. . .” However, at the same congress, the pro-independence faction also moved to change the country’s official title from the Republic of China to Taiwan, with the reminder that the DPP has legislative majority and control of the executive to effect changes. The second motion was also sent up to the DPP Central Executive Committee for review.

Possibilities such as the second motion are concerning to China, and China’s response has been to tighten the diplomatic screws while calling out President Tsai’s failure to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. There are concerns that China may tighten the economic screws, which will hurt Taiwan’s sluggish economy. As an indication, tourists from China have fallen by 30 percent since President Tsai’s inauguration, and that has made an impact on the tourist industry in Taiwan, as protestors highlight.

It is clear that this is no easy path to trudge: Taiwan’s unique standing in the international community is bound in its relations with China, so that cross-strait relations reverberate onto domestic agenda and the government’s policy-effectiveness. China has been very clear on what it needs to see from President Tsai, in order to maintain ongoing political peace and economic stability. Meanwhile, the electorate is beating the drums for a quick economic turnround, but is also resistant to painful reforms that are likely to be part of the turnaround. How well the President’s softly, softly approach, to the factions in her party, to the electorate, and to China, will clearly be tested thoroughly.

Taiwan: Presidential and General Elections, January 2016

January 16, 2016 witnessed two historic events in Taiwan: the election of the first female president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the first legislative majority for the DPP. Tsai was elected to the presidency with an absolute majority of 56.1% of the votes, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang (KMT) received 31 percent of the popular votes, and James Soong of the People First Party (PFP) got 12.8 percent of the votes. Turnout was 66.3 percent, the lowest since 1996 when direct elections of the presidency began.

In the 113 legislative-seat race, the Central Election Commission reported a total of 354 candidates for 73 regional seats, 23 aboriginal candidates for 6 seats, 18 parties with 179 candidates for 34 at-large seats. The at-large seat-allocation for the parties is:

DPP 18
KMT 11
PFP 3
New Power Party (NPP) 2

Source: Central Election Commission

With the election, DPP holds 68 seats of the 113-seat legislature (up from 40); the Kuomintang (KMT) has 35 seats (down from 64), and the NPP, a new party formed in January following the Sunflower Movement where student-led protestors occupied the legislature in protest of opaque cross-straits trade agreements, wins five legislative seats. The other parties to sit in the legislature include three seats for the PFP (no change), 1 seat for the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (down from 2), and one seat to an independent.

Going into election day, Tsai was the consistent leader in the polls, hitting her stride early in the race as the candidate-nominee for the DPP with no other contenders for the nomination. Indeed, Tainan mayor, William Lai Ching-te, who was rumoured to be a possible contender, mayor advocated for the party to unite behind Tsai’s candidacy on his facebook page.

In contrast, the majority ruling party going into the election, the KMT, floundered. The party’s presidential nomination was notable for the lack of political heavyweights contesting the party’s nomination. The party officially nominated Hung Hsiu-chu, deputy legislative speaker, as party nominee at the party congress in July following her success at the two-stage party primary, but the candidate was dogged by lacklustre support within the party. Indeed, key party figures absented themselves from Hung’s campaigns, and party members’ resistance to Hung’s candidacy amplified when the chair of the People First Party (PFP) James Soong, entered the presidential race in August.

Soong’s contestation of the presidential race was not a surprise: the candidate had left the KMT to form the splinter PFP party in 2000 to contest presidential elections then. Soong was rumoured to be approached by former DPP Chair Shih Ming-the, who announced his own candidacy for the presidential elections in late May, about a possible joint-ticket. However, Shih struggled to obtain the 270,000 signatures as endorsement to be eligible as presidential candidate and exited the race in September. Soong’s entry into the presidential race saw him immediately placed ahead of KMT’s Hung. That may have emboldened the candidate, or perhaps it was a standing strategy, but Soong was rumoured to be seeking support from his erstwhile party comrades, a charge he denied even as his visits to former KMT council members became known.

Meanwhile, the KMT – which had maintained publicly of support for the party nomination of Hung – saw increasingly vocal and public party opposition to the candidate. On October 17, the KMT officially cancelled Hung’s candidacy and replaced the party-nomination with Eric Chu, the KMT party chair and Taipei City mayor.

Despite the party-switch – or, perhaps, because of it – Eric Chu never gained ground against Tsai. The party seemed to weaken further with the announcements of the vice presidential candidates: Tsai running mate was Academia Sinica Vice President Chen Chien-jen; Chu selected former labour minister, Jennifer Wang, while Soong’s vice-presidential nominee was Hsu Hsin-ying, chair of the newly formed Republic Party. Of the three vice-presidential nominees, Wang was the most controversial, igniting protests over her labour-rights record.

The presidential inauguration will be held on May 20, 2016. Meanwhile, the president-elect is busy getting her cabinet in order in the presidential-parliamentary system. 1 Optimism – and expectations — run high for the new president.

———–

  1. Elgie, Robert. “List of president-parliamentary and premier-presidential systems.” August 12, 2014. http://presidential-power.com/?p=1757

Taiwan – More on Presidential Election 2016: The KMT Saga

Three months before a presidential election is usually crunch time when candidates are stumping through the nation to mobilize support, shaking hands and kissing babies of core constituencies at rallies and fund-raisers, and generally aiming to throw their best political punches at opponents to gain traction for the impending polls. It is, therefore, curious, that at this juncture, the Kuomintang (KMT) has chosen to switch presidential candidates: following an extempore party congress on October 17, 2015, the KMT has firmly, albeit apologetically, replaced the party’s nominee, deputy legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, with KMT chair Eric Chu. The political saga behind the KMT nomination switch clearly deserves some attention.

The KMT presidential nomination had been notable for the lack of political heavyweights contesting the party’s nomination. Indeed, despite endless speculation and rumoured pressures within the KMT, two high-profile candidates – legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng and New Taipei City mayor and party chair Eric Chu – stayed clear of the nomination race. As a result, by the party primary registration deadline in May, only two hopefuls had thrown their names into race; of the two, only Hung mustered enough votes to cross the 15,000 minimum votes threshold to proceed to the next party nomination phase, the opinion survey. Hung subsequently also passed the 30 percent threshold of that phase to garner the party’s official nomination on July 19 at the KMT national party congress.

Despite these achievements, Hung battled uphill to maintain support, much less establish momentum, within the KMT. Some of the resistance to Hung’s candidacy was undoubtedly due to successive polls that showed DPP presidential nominee, Tsai Ing-wen, widening an already-strong lead over Hung and other possible candidates in a presidential match-up. Hung’s support in the KMT was thinned further by the entry of the chair of People First Party, James Soong, into the presidential race. A former KMT member who split from the party in 2000 to contest presidential elections then, Soong continues to draw support from KMT supporters and even within the KMT itself.

Consequently, Hung’s presidential electioneering is marked frequently by the absence of local and national party stalwarts, followed by vehement denials from the KMT that the party is considering replacing the nominee and equally vigorous dismissals from Hung’s office that she is contemplating quitting the race. Nevertheless, the rumours persisted, and Hung’s brief suspension of her election campaign in early September probably did not help to tamp down the rumours.

Still, the candidate returned to the campaign fore, only – it seems – in time to confront yet more bad news: a group of KMT members was rumoured to be considering splitting from the party to force leaders to replace Hung’s candidacy. This was followed by party chair Eric Chu’s public acknowledgment of divisions within the party; days later, KMT Central Standing Committee member Chiang Shuo-ping announced that he would seek the extempore party congress to officially assess replacing Hung.

Following the announcement of the October 17 party congress meeting, KMT officials confirmed that Hung was previously urged to quit the race in favour of other possible candidates. This may be aimed at demonstrating ongoing discussion – rather than abrupt change – within the party about the race. Notwithstanding, the new candidate has a significant feat to perform: it is, clearly, not a question of whether Chu will do better as a candidate but, rather, whether he will keep the KMT in the presidency and as majority party in the legislature. As far as the polls are concerned, DPP’s presidential nominee Tsai Ing-wen remains the person to beat in that race, and the numbers suggest that it will not be an easy contest. In the legislative race, the KMT’s routing in the 9-in-1 elections in November 2014 was followed by more balanced by-election results in February 2015. Still, there is little doubt that the legislative race will also be tough. Clearly, the new KMT presidential candidate has his work cut out for him.

Taiwan – Presidential Election 2016: Nominating the Candidates

Presidential and legislative elections are scheduled for Taiwan in January 2016. With just six months of electioneering ahead, the races – particularly the presidential race – appear muted, due in no small part to the lack of competition for the party nomination. This lack of intraparty competition seems surprising, given that the two-term incumbent, President Ma Jing-yeou, is hugely unpopular. For the opposition, a nomination – particularly in light of the landslide elections against the governing party in the nine-in-one local elections in November, 2014 – provides unprecedented tailwinds to a presidential campaign. For the ruling party, the unpopularity of the incumbent president provides an opportunity to steer an independent direction that departs from well-worn tracks. Given such promising beginnings, the dearth of candidates is curious. At the same time, it also calls attention to the candidates who are currently in or expected to run in the presidential race.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officially nominated party-chair, Tsai Ing-wen, as presidential nominee on April 15, 2015. Tsai was the only candidate to throw her hat in the ring for the party nomination; as a result, the party skipped party primaries altogether. Tsai contested the presidential elections in 2012 but lost to the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, Ma Jing-yeou. This time round, her odds look considerably better: as an indication, strong contenders for the DPP party-chair race in 2014 – Su Tseng-chang and former premier Frank Hsieh – dropped out of that race to essential cede the position to Tsai. Su was expected to contest the DPP presidential nomination, as was Tainan mayor, William Lai Ching-te; however, neither came to pass. Indeed, the popular Tainan mayor advocated for the party to unite behind Tsai’s candidacy on a facebook post.

On the KMT front, two hopefuls threw in their names by the party primary registration deadline: Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu, and former Health Minister Tang Chih-liang. Only one, Deputy Speaker Hung, passed the party threshold of 15,000 votes to proceed to the next phase of the party nomination, the opinion polls, where she will need to receive at least 30 percent support in order to be nominated as party candidate. If Hung fails to pass that threshold, then the party may draft a candidate for the party nomination directly. Two possible contenders, if that should come to pass, are: Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng and New Taipei City Mayor and party chair Eric Chu. While Chu had steadfastly rejected the possibility of running for the presidency, Wang has been coy: on May 15, a day before the party primary deadline, he “thanked and apologized” to supporters without explicitly rejecting the possibility of a presidential run.

Besides candidates from the two main parties, an independent candidate – former DPP Chair Shih Ming-teh – has announced his candidacy. The former opposition leader, a political prisoner for 25 years, is rumoured to have talked to former presidential candidate for the 2012 elections, James Soong, about a possible joint-ticket. The independent has already vowed to form a coalition cabinet if successful. Shih will need 270,000 signatures as endorsement to be eligible as presidential candidate.

Taiwan – By-elections 2015: Results and Lessons

The February 2015 by-elections saw contestation of five legislative seats vacated following success in the 9-in-1 local elections in November 2014. The electoral routing of the Kuomintang (KMT) party in November raised the possibility of a similar Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) dominance in the by-elections. That did not come to be: the elections saw both parties retain seats previously held by their respective parties, with three going to the DPP and two to KMT. The legislative composition is unchanged: the 113-seat legislature has 64 seats for the KMT and 40 for the DPP. The newly-elected legislators will serve short-terms until the next national legislative elections in January 2016. Turnout was low, averaging mid-30 percent, with the lowest in Taichung (30.76 percent) and the highest in Nantou (37.07 percent). The low turnout was probably not unexpected given by-elections, although it was likely affected further by TransAsia air crash tragedy, and low-key or cancelled campaigns in the final week of the race due to the tragedy.

What lessons do the by-elections hold? The status-quo outcome, following the disproportionate loss for the KMT in the local elections, suggests lessons for both parties: first, President Ma’s unpopularity does not translate into electoral liability if his influence in the KMT is dialled-back; second, the DPP’s electoral viability rests on progress beyond an anti-President Ma platform.

Going into the by-elections, the KMT took significant steps to address President Ma’s unpopularity to diminish the electoral liability. Following President Ma’s resignation as party-leader, the KMT elected Eric Chu, New Taipei City mayor, as new party leader. Thus far, Chu has signalled a move towards greater transparency in a bid to woo support for the party; for instance, he launched a probe into the KMT assets, which party-elders had resisted. Along the same lines, the KMT party-leader has also indicated that the party may rescind its case to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a flashpoint of public disapproval for the KMT. The KMT government has also granted medical parole for former President Chen Shui-bian, also widely seen as a reconciliatory effort across party lines that also redeems the KMT’s public standing. These efforts have stemmed additional political backlash, as the by-election results indicate. If the KMT and its political leaders make further inroads on transparency and responsiveness to the public, the party is likely to gain electoral viability for the 2016 elections.

The DPP was optimistic going into the by-elections, and party-chair and possible 2016-presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen actively campaigned for the five DPP legislative contenders. However, the party suffered from its decision to withdraw its DPP candidate, Wu Yi-chen, to back former Sunflower movement student leader Chen Wei-ting as an independent in the Miaoli county district. When Chen dropped out of the race because of previous sexual harassment incidents, the party scrambled for a replacement, ultimately returning to Wu as the party candidate. Wu garnered a respectable 32,966 votes against KMT’s Hsu Chih-jung (47,105) in a KMT-traditional stronghold. Still, the episode – in the context of the overall by-election outcomes – underlines the DPP’s electoral viability for 2016 rests beyond anti-President Ma sentiments.

East Asia – Presidential Powers and Semi-Presidential Systems

Calls for constitutional revisions have surfaced across four of the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East and Southeast Asia, namely, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The appeals for constitutional changes have arisen for different reasons: in the Philippines, some have raised the possibility in order to extend the tenure of a generally successful and popular president. In Indonesia, it is aimed at improving governability in the face of a fragmented, uncooperative legislature. In South Korea, the option relates to reducing the powers of the executive for greater accountability, a stance advocated by presidential candidates – including current President Park – in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, in Taiwan, constitutional change offers the prospect of constraining the powers of the president. Despite differences in the objectives of change, one reform frequently suggested to replace existing institutional set-up across the countries is the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system. This raises an interesting question: what is the underlying problem across the countries that the premier-presidential form may resolve?

Despite differences in the objectives, one commonality across the countries is presidentialized parties, where the executive-leader has “considerable independence in the electoral and governing arenas.” [1]According to Samuels and Shugart (2009), presidentialized parties result when the “constitutional structure separates executive and legislative origin and/or survival.” The outcome of the president’s independence manifests differently across the countries: in the Philippines, political parties may rally around strong candidates to ensure continuity; in Indonesia, presidents may be saddled with hostile legislatures; in South Korea and Taiwan, presidents may have few incentives to shift focus away from their personal agendas to the parties.[2]

Clearly, the outcomes depend in part on party organization and party-system development  in the countries. What is less clear is that the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system will resolve the underlying problem of party weakness. It may behoove these new democracies of the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan, to consider the outlay of time and effort towards constitutional change.

_____

[1] Elgie, Robert. 2011.

[2] For another perspective, see Cheibub and Limongi (2014). Cheibub, Jose Antonio and Fernando Limongi. 2014. “The structure of legislative-executive relations: Asia in comparative perspective.” In Comparative Constitutional Law in Asia, ed. Rosalind Dixon and Tim Ginsburg. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing

 

Taiwan – Election results from the 9-in-1 local elections

November 29, 2014 saw the first “block” 9-in-1 local elections in Taiwan, where nine elections were held concurrently on the same day. A total of 11,130 seats were up for grabs, including:

–         6 seats for Municipal Mayors and 16 seats for County Magistrates (City Mayors)

–         375 seats for Municipal Councilors, 50 seats for Councilors of indigenous districts in municipalities, and 532 seats for County (City) Councilors

–         6 seats for Chiefs of indigenous districts in municipalities, and 198 seats for Township Chiefs

–         2,096 seats for Township Councilors and 7,851 seats for chiefs of village (borough)

 

Of particular interests are the 22 city- and county-mayoral contests, since these make up most of the country’s largest cities. The elections saw a routing of the governing Kuomintang (KMT): the KMT previously held 15 of Taiwan’s but won just six seats in this election. The Democratic Progressive Party took 13, including four of Taiwan’s six special municipalities, with the DPP-backed independent Ko Wen-je taking the KMT-stronghold of Taipei.

Electoral statistics released by the Central Election Commission, tabulated below, shows the DPP’s decided wins in its traditional strongholds – such as Chen Chu’s 70.4 percent of the electoral votes in Kaohsiung – while the KMT’s wins are more marginal.

election outcomes 9-in-1 2014

Analyses of the results have already begun, with many holding the line that the results signify a rejection of President Ma Ying-jeou’s leadership of the country and the party. In particular, the KMT’s losses in several of its traditional strong-holds – including Taipei to independent Ko Wen-je, and Chiayi county to DPP’s Twu Shing-jer – represent significant, or even unexpected, setbacks.

Already, the semi-presidential system has seen the fallout from the election results: Premier Jiang Yi-huah and 88-members have tendered a mass cabinet resignation to take responsibility, with KMT party members vocalizing the need for a change in the chair. President Ma announced that he would resign as chair at the KMT Central Standing Committee meeting on Wednesday, Dec 3, 2014.

At a minimum, the election results suggest competitive elections in 2016, as the KMT  remakes itself to woo voters while challengers to the KMT surge following the boost of confidence, if not as DPP-members, then as independents,

Taiwan – Party-nomination, Local Elections, and the Presidency

With a highly unpopular President at the helm of the country, the prospects for the opposition pan-Green camp led by the opposition DPP party to recapture the presidency with a concurrent a legislative majority – the latter has proven elusive so far for the pan-Green camp – appear probable. The KMT captured the Presidency and a significant majority in the legislature in 2008, raising concerns that the formidable largesse of the party may pave the way to a one-party dominant system. Fortunately for the country’s political development, those concerns proved unfounded: there has been a steady move back to viable competitive elections, although the KMT managed to retain the presidency and the legislative majority in the 2012 elections. But the progressive erosion of popular support for the KMT and President Ma has not ebbed, as evident in the low points of 2014 captured by the 24-day student-led occupation of the legislature and campaigns initiated to recall legislative members supportive of President Ma’s agenda.

Under these conditions, it is probably not surprising that many see – or hope to see – the 2014 November local elections as the bellwether for the 2016 national elections. In this context, the DPP and pan-Green camp has sought to identify and field viable candidates for the local elections to capture a victory-sprint towards the presidential and national races. In a recent development, physician Ko Wen-je bettered DPP-candidate Pasuya Yao in the second stage of the pan-Green primary process for the Taipei city mayoral race and will likely be supported by the DPP for the election.

Interesting or competitive or controversial cases tend to draw attention, and a highly-watched race such as the Taipei mayoral elections is no exception. Unfortunately, problems are particularly evident under scrutiny, and the usual suspects of strategic voting or weak-party identification pepper the two-stage nomination process in the pan-Green camp. As a result, it may be useful to point out a larger picture of transparency or accountability in the party nomination process.

Since the late 1990s, the DPP has implemented a two-stage primary process that pitches DPP-aspirants who win in telephone polls in the first-stage against independent pan-Green candidates in the second-stage. While that process has been criticized – most recently, former Vice-President Annette Lu withdrew from the primary, citing failure of DPP “integrity” and raising the prospects that she may run as an independent for the mayoral race of Taipei City – it has, at a minimum, brought greater transparency to the nomination process in the pan-Green camp.

Transparency is important: party-candidate nominations have come under significant criticism in several East and Southeast Asian emergent democracies, including South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia, with many viewing the process as the root of corruption in politics. Given the tepid party-identification in these emergent democracies, party-institutionalization needs to balance candidate-centered campaigns that bring popular support – but which are liable to become personality-oriented rather than party-oriented – with party-building efforts that focus on broadening the party-base. Having a clean nomination process is an important step in this process, and should be emphasized as one of these party-building efforts.

Taiwan – The President’s influence as party-Chair and Legislative Independence

One of the more controversial changes to the Kuomintang (KMT) party charter – introduced by President Ma Jing-yeou and passed at the party congress in November 2013 – ensures that an elected KMT-president will automatically assume the position of Chair of the party. Delegates supporting and opposing the measure acknowledge that the change will enhance unity in the party; they differ primarily on whether that is a good thing. The question may have taken on added urgency with President Ma’s tumbling approval ratings following his reelection as party chair in July 2013. What is at stake here? In the long-term, the measure affects two outcomes: the president’s influence on the party and party members’ legislative independence. In the short-term, supporters and opponents may be quibbling over the president’s legacy versus legislators’ tenure.

For the executive, the measure narrows the gap between the presidency and party members in the legislature in the semi-presidential system in Taiwan. In particular, if the KMT wins the presidency in elections, the new president-elect will take over as chair of the party, which brings with it the legislative support – at least in theory – of the KMT members in the legislature. One outcome is better synchronization of the policy agendas of the executive and the party. The immediate stakes is that current party chair, President Ma, will cut short by 18 months his term as chair to make way for the new president-elect should that take place. The trade-off may be that, as chair, Ma will have some influence on the party’s presidential nominee and the election platform.

For the party’s legislative members, the measure similarly narrows the gap between the presidency and party members in the legislature. For party members, this means that their legislative independence may be reduced. However, there may be trade-off in the form of longer office-tenure. In particular, a popular president-elect is likely to bring coattail effects for party members into the legislature.

But, in the short-term, the stakes are affected by two additional circumstances: first, President Ma’s perceived lack of consultation with party members over matters that affect the party, such as in his ousting of Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng; second, the upcoming the 7-in-1 elections in 2014, followed by the 2016 legislative and presidential elections.

In the near-term, the concern for KMT legislators, then, is not limited to party accord: there may be possible negative coattail effects that affect their legislative tenure. Specifically, the executive-as-partychair ties the electoral fortunes of party members to the president’s popularity, or lack thereof, while reducing the possibility of recovery from missteps or misfortunes. Opponents of the measure alluded to the problem: Ma continues on as chair even if the party suffers electoral defeats at the local elections and the 2016 national elections.

It may bear reminding that Taiwan is an emergent democracy with weak partisanship. To the extent that political party institutionalization is a key pillar of democratic development, this measure in the KMT takes a step towards party consolidation, although it may increase uncertainty of election outcomes.[1]

Taiwan – Public support, corruption, and the President

A recent survey in Taiwan shows that even as the government has earned points across several measures capturing performance on human-rights and liberties– such as enhancing religious freedoms, electoral freedoms, and freedom of movement – it suffers on the issue of corruption control. On that front, the government received a score of 1.8 out of 5 – the lowest among the survey-questions – indicating substantial dissatisfaction with the government in the control of corruption.

What has this to do with the President? In particular, given that President Ma is constitutionally prohibited from running for another term, is public support a meaningful constraint on president’s agenda or powers?

In two regards, the answer is: Yes.

First, public support affects the legislative success of a president. In particular, studies show that presidents’ legislative success is highly tied to public satisfaction.[1] That is, legislatures are highly sensitive to public approval of the president in passing the president’s bills, so that a low public approval may signal a legislature’s greater willingness to challenge the president’s policy agenda. It is probably not surprisingly that legislators are even less constrained to toe the president’s lines when faced with a term-limited president in the final term. Thus, in terms of pushing his policy agenda, notwithstanding his final term as President, it behoves President Ma to pay attention to public approval and, correspondingly, the issues that engender public disapproval.

Second, the particular area of public disaffection – corruption – should also be a source of concern for the President. Corruption – defined as the failure to exercise impartiality of government authority [2] – has galvanized widespread protests in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and studies show that it is at the root of the Colored Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.[3] As an emergent democracy, Taiwan can ill-afford such protests that take time, effort, and other resources away from the key tasks of institution-building and policy-performance upon which political and social stability – not to mention democratic consolidation – rests.[4] Again, it behoves President Ma, who has seen his share of protests this year, to take clear steps in demonstrating efforts at controlling corruption to avert its potential to galvanize protests.

Interestingly, the survey was commissioned by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, whose current chair is Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng. That is the same Speaker embroiled in the ongoing and public political dispute with President Ma Jing-yeou since September, 2013, when the President moved to expel Wang from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party – which would also end Wang’s position as speaker – for alleged influence-peddling. Wang has won public sympathy as well as a court injunction against his ouster from the legislature, pending the outcome of his legal battle against the KMT’s decision to revoke his membership. In contrast, the President has seen his approval plummet as a result of the case, partly due to public suspicion of wiretapping used as evidence for the case, the President’s overstepping of constitutional separation of powers in Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, and Ma’s discharge of a rival.