Category Archives: Taiwan

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.


Taiwan – Ma’s Presidential Blues

Taiwan’s President Ma jing-yeou has seen better days. The leader and his Kuomingtang (KMT) party-led Pan-Blue camp swept into the executive and legislature in 2008 and effectively took control of the semi-presidential system. The 2008 run ended the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s 8-year hold on the presidency and reduced the DPP’s plurality in the legislature from 40 percent to 24 percent (although the DPP increased electoral support in that election). Fast-forward to 2012: Ma successfully retained the presidential office, and the KMT-led Pan-Blue camp retained its legislative majority, albeit reduced to 64 seats. Analysts and pollsters noted the Taiwan electorate’s endorsement of the KMT-directive to continue to build ties with China, and it seemed that all was on track for the reelected leader and party to focus on reviving a weakening economy under conditions of the global financial crisis.

Yet, less than two years later, President Ma appears to be in a battle for his political life: he is facing single-digit approval ratings and mass protests calling for his resignation from the office.

Political development clearly benefits from greater government accountability, but when citizens mobilize to demand for greater accountability – such as these protests against President Ma – the vitality of the thousands or tens of thousands acting beyond periodic elections spurs efforts to harness that momentum towards concrete, documentable outcomes. These include demands for executive recall or even constitutional change.

It is no small irony that even as the protests against Ma are founded on the personalistic nature of his presidency – in particular, his effort to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng is seen as a political move that oversteps the separation of powers in semi-presidential and presidential systems – some of the changes demanded by protestors also move away from stable, institutional (constitutional) politics. It is, thus, opportune to consider: what changes improve the survival of the president as an institution in the semi-presidential system system but not that of the occupant?

Studies on semi-presidential systems note the instability of the political system in minority and deadlock conditions, particularly in comparison to their parliamentary counterparts.[1] These studies have spurred additional works that emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the performance of the political system and government’s policy performance to ensure government accountability without rejecting the political system in the process.[2]

Based on these studies, the answers are clear. Presidential approval/disapproval are fertile grounds for change if these changes relate to government accountability for policy performance. In the context of Taiwan, they may be used to impel changes that underlie policy performance and government accountability for that performance. Yet, importantly, caution must be exercised if approval/disapproval and protests are used to undergird institutional changes to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The term limits on the president means that Ma will not be eligible to stand for another election. This means that voters will not have the satisfaction of heaving him out of office. This may explain the swelling of protests to oust him out mid-term. Yet, it is no small irony that one recommendation for constitutional change to increase greater accountability and presidential approval while stabilizing the presidential system is to remove the term limits.[3]


[1] See some excellent discussions in Elgie (2011), Cheibub and Chernykh (2008), and Samuels and Shugart (2010).

[2] Mattes and Bratton (2007), Duch (2001), Yap (2013)

[3] Cheibub (2002)