Tag Archives: Asia

Indonesia – The President, Awesome Indonesia, and the Red-White Opposition

A year ago on April 9, 2014, Indonesians went to the polls to partake in one of the largest elections in the world, including 560 seats of the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR), 128 seats for the People’s Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD). That election saw no party win enough legislative seats (threshold 20%) or electoral votes (25% national vote) to independently field a presidential candidate. The three months preceding the presidential elections in July 2014 saw intense political horse-trading as the 12 legislative parties weighed options against the possibility of participating in the winning camp. By the time of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inauguration in October, clear lines had emerged in the legislature: the Awesome Indonesia coalition supporting President Jokowi, comprising the PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Nasdem (National Democrat Party), PAN (National Mandate Party), and Hanura (People’s Conscience Party); and the Red-and-White Opposition Coalition supporting defeated presidential-candidate Prabowo Subianto, comprising six other legislative parties, Gerindra (Party Movement Indonesia Raya), Golkar, PKB (National Awakening Party), PKS (Prosperous Justice Party), PPP (United Development Party), and Democratic Party. With the President’s legislative support-coalition clearly in the minority – 207-seats total against the Opposition coalition’s 353 (although these are in flux, as will be discussed later) – it is timely to ask: has the Opposition Coalition affected the President’s political agenda?

Some symbolic and real losses that have occurred, although not all lasted:

Some reversals that have occurred, limiting the real or potential “damage” of the Red-White Opposition:

On balance, then, the President’s agenda appears to be successfully withstanding the Red-White Opposition Coalition. There is reason to believe that the President will be more successful with time: in particular, two parties of the Red-White Opposition Coalition are suffering significant internal rifts that threaten to change their allegiances. Specifically, the PPP and Golkar appear to have split into pro-Red-White and pro-Awesome-Indonesia factions, with leaders of the respective factions each claiming mandate as the real leaders. Pro-Awesome-Indonesia faction leaders have successfully sought the Justice Minister’s intervention; however, the pro-Red-White factions have successfully sought temporary injunctions against the Justice Minister’s decree recognising the opposing-faction with lawsuits at the State Administrative Court (PTUN). The PTUN has yet to make a final ruling, but has suspended the Justice Minister’s decree recognizing the pro-Awesome-Indonesia faction leaders of the two parties.

Whether the Awesome Indonesia coalition grows from 207 to 246 (with the PPP) or even 337 (with the addition of PPP and Golkar) remains to be seen. One way or another, with the reinstatement of direct local elections for this July, resolutions for the parties – and, consequently, for the respective pro-President and Opposition Coalitions – are not far-off.

South Korea – The President, Opposition, and Political Trust

200 days following the Sewol ferry tragedy, the legislature finally formulated a bill for the investigation of the disaster to which the Sewol families have given their consent. The prolonged passage of the bill – due largely to the victim families’ resistance to previous iterations of the Sewol investigation bill – underlines political distrust of President Park and her Saenuri Party government as well as the opposition alliance, the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), to represent the interests of the Sewol victims’ families. This raises the questions: what is political trust? What are the effects of political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea?

What is political trust? Political trust refers to public confidence in the facility and capacity of the political system to deliver regularly political goods that include contestable political succession, regularized competition, civil and political liberties, and freedom of association and expression.[1] Political trust, then, rests on the design and workings of the “institutions, structures and processes” to produce quality political goods “even if left untended,” based on principles of fairness and accountability. [2]

What are the effects of political distrust? Studies show that political trust – derived from institutional performance – underpins the distinction of political performance from government performance so that it buffers the political system from the pressures of immediate outputs. Conversely, political distrust means that the political system is under pressure to produce immediate outputs, while the concomitant lack of vested interests in the political system means that the public is more willing to engage in non-compliant behaviors, including civil disobedience and protests, to demand for these outputs.[3] Political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea, then, potentially jeopardizes democracy in the country.

The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House – including hunger strikers – demanding a full, independent investigation of the Sewol tragedy signal the political distrust with a political system that has given rise to regulatory lapses that endanger wellbeing.

Importantly, the political distrust extends to the opposition alliance: indeed, the opposition NPAD alliance’s effort to push through previous iterations of the Sewol bill faced bitter opposition from the Sewol victims’ families and felled the recently-elected NPAD floor leader, Park Young-sun. Clearly, the political distrust means that the opposition – like the government – is faced with pressures of immediate outputs and performance.

The road to build political trust is clear: focus on institution-building that delivers political goods rather than public or private goods such as economic performance. But there are clear trade-offs from such a focus: the political system may be buffered but the parties and the government remain vulnerable to voters’ expectations of performance and subsequent rejection for failing to deliver. The government and opposition may do well to note that, as they struggle with these trade-offs, the democratic health of the country remains at stake.


[1] Mishler and Rose (2001) ; Yap (2013)

[2] Ruscio (1999:651-2); Grimes (2006); Shi (2001: 401). Shi, Tianjian (2001). “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.” Comparative Politics vo 33 no 4: 401-19

[3] Lianjiang Li (2008) ; Marien and Hogen (2011)

India – A Figurehead President?

In May 2014 Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance won a crushing victory in the world’s biggest election held yet. Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominates the Alliance, was given an awesome mandate winning 336 of the 543 seats available in the popularly elected Lok Sabha. This massive majority, well over the amount needed to govern alone, gave India for the first time in thirty years a Prime Minister untroubled and unhindered by needing coalition concessions or managing disparate parties within a wafer thin majority.

In 1976 the British politician Lord Hailsham famously spoke of the Elected Dictatorship perception where the Government of the day through its party dominance of Parliament could rule almost unencumbered until the next election. All other institutions, so this argument goes, could not or would not stymie the will of the Executive. Not long before Hailsham’s grim prognostication India under Indira Gandhi had its own very real Elected Dictatorship when the country from 1975-77 was ruled through a State of Emergency. Freedom of speech, the right to assembly, Opposition protests and other key components of democracy were suspended and arbitrary arrests, executive abuse, controversial policies and opposition and media detainment ran amok.

Actually, though, Mrs Gandhi herself did not proclaim this extraordinary period in modern Indian politics, which was done to protect her position. The proclamation was made by the President of the Indian Republic, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, under Article 352 of the Emergency Sections of the Indian Constitution. This was proclaimed without the Cabinet or parliament’s approval on 25 June 1975. It enabled Mrs Gandhi, who had engineered his election, to rule India by decree on grounds of national emergency and internal disturbance. The actions from that period still resonate around India.

The Indian presidency, elected by the national and regional legislatures, was meant to mirror constitutionally the position of the British sovereign. However, the Indian presidency has key powers, which differentiate it from comparable presidencies. These distinctions are most especially found under Part XVIII – the Emergency sections. Article 352 is described above, but more prevalent has been the so-called ‘President’s Rule’ of Article 356, which enables the Union Cabinet through the President to take full and direct control over any state in the republic. Originally envisaged by constitutional framers like B.N. Rau and B.R. Ambedkar as being powers to be used in only the last resort ‘President’s Rule’ has in fact been used well over 100 times since 1950 – often on dubious and partisan grounds, rather than the breakdown in constitutional machinery that the constitution makers presumed.

The current President of India since July 2012 is veteran Congress politician Pranab Mukherjee who has over four decades of high level political experience including holding the Finance, Defence and External Affairs portfolios at the Union level. He is a loyalist to the Gandhi-Nehru family and approaching his eightieth year has little left to prove.

With many of the great institutions of state dominated by Modi supporters, especially in the wake of the massive May 2014 victory the President, who is formally tasked to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the Indian constitution remains one important bastion that will resist the Modi advance. With controversial legislation, minority fears, weakened Opposition (so weak in fact that Congress has with its allies just 70 seats in the Lok Sabha) and concerns overs a revived elected dictatorship, the Indian President, with his substantial formal powers, may yet frustrate the Government as India’s gets used to a unique era of cohabitation.

Indian Presidents can either ensure Government power over the state like President Ali in 1975 or they can do the opposite. At the very least President Mukherjee from the splendour of Lutyen’s palace Rashtrapati Bhavan will be fully aware of the powers and responsibilities of his office and will not be a rubber stamp.

The Philippines – Political parties and Presidential power

Vice president Jejomar Binay recently left his party of 30 years, the Partido ng Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), to form a new party in preparation for his run at the 2016 presidential elections. VP Binay was a member of the Laban (Laban ng Bayan) Party when it was headed by former senator Benigno Aquino. The Laban Party joined forces with the Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas (PDP) in 1986, and has enjoyed significant electoral success – winning the presidency under Corazon Aquino in 1986 – as well as lacklustre performance – in the last 2013 elections, it won one seat in the Senate and 2 of the 231 seats in the House.

With VP Binay’s departure from the PDP-Laban, the party has announced that it will leave the main opposition coalition, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA). The UNA was an electoral alliance formed in part with VP Binay’s support as national chair of PDP-Laban. However, PDP-Laban President Senator Aquilino Pimentel III was opposed to the coalition and did not run under the UNA banner for his senatorial seat but, instead, under the administration’s Team PNoy, which he successfully secured.

The situation with the PDP-Laban and the UNA underscores changeability in political parties in the Philippines and renews the question: how does this changeability affect presidential power and policy performance in the country? The answer – discussed at greater length below – is not hopeful: the changeability undermines programmatic political development and fails to displace personalistic money-centric politics.

Studies identify at least three fundamental roles for political parties:[1] (1) as vehicles to mobilize support for elections; (2) as a political pillar encapsulating regularized patterns, such as programmatic political contestation rather than personalistic politics or candidate-centered politics; and (3) undergird executive-legislature relations that frame political performance.

Do political parties perform as vehicles to mobilize support for elections in the Philippines? On the one hand, thus far, presidential candidates have continued to run under party labels; on the other hand, it is debatable if this represents a rallying under political parties or if political parties are rallying around strong candidates. Thus, for instance, the 2013 elections for the senate are not necessarily indicative of political party performance as much as Team Pnoy’s success.

Are political parties in the Philippines encapsulating regularized patterns? The answer to this is less ambiguous than the previous: studies show that political trust remains low in the Philippines, and the electorate remains sceptical of political institutions and representatives of Congress, Senate, and political parties.[2]

Do political parties undergird executive-legislature relations that frame political performance? As the PDP-Laban and UNA situation indicate, and the rebuilding of the Liberal Party under President Aquino III suggest, political parties are still working out their coalescence. While this process is underway, executive-legislative relations continue to ride on personalistic relations. This means that successful policymaking generally carries high transaction costs.

Clearly, political party institutionalization in the Philippines will benefit the country in the immediate term and the long run. There is reason for hope: as executives and legislators become increasingly cognizant of the significant political and social costs in running personalistic campaigns and as the anticorruption efforts deepen, the trends will converge towards greater institutionalization.

Indonesia – (Dead) Presidents and Political Parties

The electoral race is heating up with the countdown to the legislative elections in April 2014 and the presidential elections in July. Almost on cue, we see political swipes taken against the standing president – President Yudhoyono and his once-popular Democratic Party – as well as the intensifying efforts of political parties to build momentum. The exercise has witnessed an increasing number of political parties seizing on legacies of past, dead presidents, namely, President Suharto, President Sukarno, and President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid. In the case of President Gus Dur Wahid – a moderate Muslim strongly opposed to religious intolerance – several Islamic parties are vying to lay claims to preserving and continuing the president’s ideals. Are political parties harking back to the past of personalistic politics rather than constructing competitive, cogent political agenda based on voters’ interests? Does this speak to a trend of diminution of political parties? Evidence suggests that the answers are: no, and no.

In the first instance, there are indications that Indonesian political parties have worked to develop platforms for competitive election – albeit with varying success – with several incorporating an anti-corruption stance on their agenda. For instance, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) – the largest Islamic Party in Indonesia – has tried to expand beyond religion to become the “clean” party, i.e., one untainted by corruption, reflecting the effort to move beyond a religious platform and probably the awareness that religion was no longer sufficient to attract Indonesia’s popular vote. Unfortunately for the party, the efforts were cut short by corruption charges and sex and bribery scandals that hit the highest levels of the party. Similarly, President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party was elected on a platform of anticorruption, social justice, and economic performance and the party’s recent escalated decline is due not only to the battery of corruption charges and intraparty feuds but also a lack of policy performance. The rise of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in the polls beyond the popularity of its chair, Megawati Sokarnoputi, may also be considered as moving beyond personalities. Of course, one may argue that the new-found popularity of the PDI-P may not be due to a more robust party agenda but, rather, the popularity of Jakarta Governonr Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. There’s certainly something to that: for instance, news reports point out that Jokowi’s popularity has led parties other than the PDI-P to feature him in their political ads. But, it is also true that Jokowi’s popularity rests largely on: (a) his record of successful implementation of policy platforms; and (b) Jokowi’s “man-of-the-people” that has engaged young and old voters. More importantly, they represent significant departures from personalistic-cult politics.

These circumstances point to a hopeful assessment on the question in the second instance: the diminution of political parties in Indonesia may be greatly exaggerated. What we are witnessing is the stops and starts in the process of institutionalizing political parties in emergent democracies. With elections imminent and in the face of several unpopular revelations, it is not surprising that some parties hope to stem the tide of losing popular support by harking back to past. It remains to be seen if this will work in the immediate term; there is no question, however, that in the medium- and long-term, programmatic appeal or policy record are the bases for electoral success.

Indonesia – The 2014 Elections: Political parties and Presidential nominees

Indonesia is counting down to the elections, with House and Council races scheduled for April and the Presidency in July (with run-offs in September). 560 seats of the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) are contestable, alongside 128 seats for the People’s Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD). Together with provincial elections – 2112 seats – and district elections – 16,895 seats – the election year promises to be no small affair. A review of the election rules and the impact on political parties and the presidential elections will help frame how the election year unfolds.

Legislative elections are guided by Law No. 8, passed in 2012. Representatives to the DPR are elected under an open-list proportional system through affiliation with political parties. Members of the DPD are elected via single non-transferable vote, and perform as individuals in the Upper House, notwithstanding their political affiliations.

Article 8 of Law 8 stipulates that political parties may contest the elections if they meet the following conditions:

    1. Political Parties that contested the last Election and met the threshold of vote acquisition of the total national valid votes (3.5 percent) shall be determined as Contesting Political Parties in the next Election.
    2. Political Parties that did not meet the threshold of vote acquisition in the previous Election or newly established political parties may become Election Contestants after meeting the following requirements:

a)      have regional chapters in all provinces;

b)     have chapters in 75% (seventy five percent) of the total number of regencies/ municipalities in the province;

c)      have chapters in 50% (fifty percent) of the total number of districts/kecamatan in the regency/municipality;

d)      have at least 30% (thirty percent) women’s representation in the management of the central chapter of the political part;

e)      have a minimum of 1000 members of the total population for each chapter of political party;

In addition, Article 55 stipulates that the list of party nominees for candidates must contain at least 30% women candidates.
For 2014, the General Elections Commission (Komisi Pemilihan Unum, KPU) sanctioned 12 parties to contest the national elections, with an additional three eligible to contest provincial elections in Aceh. They are:

  • Nasdem Party
  • National Awakening Party (PKB, chair HA Muhaimin Iskandar)
  • Prosperous Justice Party (PKS, chair Muhammad Anis Matta)
  • Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, chair former President Megawai Sukarnoputri)
  • Golkar (leading party of the Suharto era, chair Aburizal Bakrie)
  • Party Movement Indonesia Raya (Gerindra, chair Prof. Dr. Ir. Suhardi, founder Prabowo Subianto)
  • Democratic Party (PD, chair President Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono)
  • National Mandate Party (PAN, chair M. Hatta Rajasa)
  • United Development Party (PPP, chair Dr. H. Suryadharma Ali)
  • People’s Conscience party (HANURA, chair former presidential candidate H. Wiranto)
  • Crescent Star Party (PBB, chair Dr. H. MS. Kaban)
  • Indonesian Justice and Unity party (PKPI, Partai Keadilan dan Persatuan Indonesia, splinter party from Golkar)

However, only parties or coalitions with at least 25 percent of the vote or 20 percent of the House are able to field a presidential candidate. The Constitutional Court has scrapped these requirements for the 2019 elections with the landmark decision to hold concurrent legislative and presidential elections. At the moment, that still rules out some of the parties, like the Gerindra party, that hold less than 20%  of the House seats.

Meanwhile, jockeying for nomination as presidential candidate of the various parties continues. Two parties have already nominated their candidates — Gerindra’s nominee is its founder, Prabowo Subianto, while Golkar’s presidential candidate is Aburizal Barkrie, its chair and chief benefactor — although they may not be able contest the presidential elections without coalition partners under the current electoral laws. Meanwhile, President Yudhoyo’s Democratic Party has set its 11 candidates on a national-tour-debate that will end in April. The PDI-P has yet to name a candidate: Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a favourite and consistently outpolls the other candidates, but there is the possibility that the party may nominate Megawati as presidential candidate.

One thing seems clear: there will be no shortage of election news from Indonesia in 2014.

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]

South Korea – Presidential powers amid opposition boycotts

President Park Geun-hye may have her work cut out for her: the failure of the government to pass a legislative bill for three months between September and December, culminating in the delayed passage of the budget bill for the 11th consecutive year, highlights the effectiveness of the opposition to challenge and even upend the government’s agenda.

The main opposition party – the Democratic Party – had boycotted parliamentary proceedings for 101 days since September over the role of the National Intelligence Service in the 2012 presidential elections. The DP returned briefly to the legislature in November but has continued to periodically boycott the Assembly.

President Park’s response has been two-fold. On the one hand, her government has extended conciliatory gestures towards the opposition. Thus, for instance, the ruling Saenuri party has agreed to opposition demands to install special committees to reform the National Intelligence Service and local elections respectively, in order to return the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, to parliamentary proceedings and out of its boycott of the legislature. The President’s budgetary speech to the National Assembly in November – decked in blue, the Blue House color and also the main opposition party’s official color – also promised compromise with the opposition.

On the other hand, the President has pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition while her government is looking for ways to temper the National Assembly Advancement law. The Assembly Advancement Law, approved in 2012 and operative this year, requires a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and limits the Assembly Speaker’s ability to bring a bill to passage to three situations: national disasters, wartime conditions, or with agreement between the ruling and opposition parties. While this has limited the ability of the ruling party to bulldoze the opposition – and, consequently, reduced the physical altercations in the parliament that often followed ruling-opposition party clashes over legislative railroading – the ruling party has also been stymied in its efforts to legislate, as the no-legislation-in-3-months condition illustrates.

If approval ratings provide any indication, President Park’s mixed approach is the way to go. In particular, approval ratings taken a week after the failed three-way talks with leaders of ruling and opposition parties showed the President with over 60 percent approval, and with more respondents blaming the opposition for the legislative stalemate than the President or the President’s party.

The foreign press was quick to label President Park as Korea’s Iron Lady when she was elected in 2012. Perhaps President Park’s two-fold approach is better captured by the Asian open-hand-over-closed-fist approach: trained and able to fight but would prefer not to.

Indonesia – To Decree or Not to Decree?

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Perppu (presidential decree, or regulation in lieu of law in Indonesia) to address the issue of one of Indonesia’s highest institutions – the Constitutional Court – being hit by the nation’s most-entrenched problem – corruption – may alleviate the poignancy of the latest corruption scandal. The anticorruption watchdog, Komisi Peberantasan Korupsi (KPK), is formally investigating Akil Mochtar, now-suspended chief justice of the constitutional court, for accepting bribes to rule in favour of a losing candidate in the district chief elections in Lebak, Banten. In Indonesia, a Perppu is a government regulation issued under an emergency that carries the weight of the law until the House of Representatives rejects it or votes to support it.

The Perppu may restore the Constitutional Court or, at the least, ensure that a phoenix rises out of its ashes. It also raises the question (over which there is already some debate): is it necessary to light the fire in the first place? That is, does the corruption scandal in the Constitutional Court warrant the Perppu? More generally, under what conditions are presidential decrees useful?

For Indonesia, the answer depends on two considerations: first, the role of the Constitutional Court; second, the effect of the Perppu on accountability.

The Indonesian Constitution places characteristic checks and balances between the executive and bicameral legislature. In addition, the Constitution specifies roles for the Supreme Audit Board (Badan Permeriksa Keuangan) to ensure accountability of state finances, the Supreme Court as the highest court of the nation, and the Constitutional Court to review constitutionality of legislation and disputes over general election results.

This capacity of the Constitutional Court – to review and rule on general election disputes – frames the corruption charges against Akil. Local elections are highly contested as a result of significant expenditure powers following devolution in 2001, and the Constitutional Court has been, hitherto, the venue for authoritative ruling – they are final and binding – in election disputes. Clearly, this scandal strikes at the heart of political trust and democratic development in the country.

The urgency regarding the Constitutional Court lies in that it continues to adjudicate in election disputes, albeit with a significant loss in credibility. President Yudhoyono’s Perppu targets three areas for action: (a) criteria, (b) selection, and (c) oversight of the justices. Fundamentally, then, the Perppu represents a clear, unfailing commitment to political integrity at the highest levels of politics. It is an important signal.

Given the significance, it is critical to consider the Perppu in the broader context of government accountability, specifically, horizontal accountability between government institutions to check and restrain abuses of power by branches of government or public agencies.[i] It is instructive to note that when O’Donnell (1998) first raised the concept of horizontal accountability, he held “judicial autonomy” as “tricky” because the lack of oversight to enhance its autonomy may lead directly to a lack of accountability (123).[ii]

In this broader context, President Yudhoyono’s effort to enhance accountability is a step in the right direction. it is no wonder: the President consulted extensively with constitutional scholars, lawmakers, and members of the judiciary on this Perppu.

Which likely answers the larger question: when are presidential decrees useful? Clearly, when they address the problem (increase government effectiveness) and improve accountability in the process.

[i] See discussions in O’Donnell (1998), and Yap and Gibb (2013: 160), about horizontal accountability as well as its complement, vertical accountability, where public officials are held accountable through the electoral process, an active civil society, or a free press.

[ii] Studies of accountability generally focus on executive accountability with its potential for abus related to the position of head of government and commander-in-chief.

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)