The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) clearly does not fit the role of a loyal opposition party such as one would normally expect to see in a democratic country. Features of a loyal opposition party include conceding defeat after losing elections yet holding on to its policy positions and ideals. They do not include launching fierce fights between ruling and opposition parties, but still conscientiously overseeing government policy, in the hope of proving itself and eventually returning to power. At present, the DPP has adopted a scorched-earth boycott strategy in the legislature, making it ineligible to meet the standard definition of a loyal political opposition.
As things stand, there seems to be no chance of this situation improving any time soon, because it has become a political tradition in Taiwan for parties to act as “disloyal oppositions” when they are out of office.
Globally, economic problems over the past few years have made everyone’s lives more difficult, so people are very angry. Political parties are at each other’s throats in a lot of democratic countries. In many parts of the world, opposition parties no longer behave loyally and sharp conflicts between governing and opposition parties are becoming more common. The US is one example of this trend, but this kind of conflict is particularly intense in Taiwan.
Although the 1990s witnessed even worse brawls in the legislature than the conflicts happening there now, governing and opposition parties still had a certain degree of trust in one another that enabled them to cooperate and secure major policy achievements such as constitutional reform and national health insurance.
Those days of mutual trust in the midst of struggle are gone. Mutual trust cannot be established by one side alone; it requires the efforts of ruling and opposition parties.
The first cracks in the edifice of inter-party trust appeared after the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) defeat at the hands of the DPP in the 2000 presidential election. Cracks then appeared within the KMT as former president and KMT chairman Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was swept out of the door by Lien Chan (連戰), his successor as party chairman. Afterward, even more cracks in the trust between ruling and opposition parties followed when then-DPP president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) held talks with Lien in the morning and only hours later then-premier Chang Chun-hsiung (張俊雄) announced a halt to the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant. After that, trust between the two sides broke down very quickly.
Lien and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) paired up to contest the 2004 presidential election. Chen beat them again, but they were unwilling to accept defeat, so they launched a long and time-consuming series of mass protests. Consequently, confidence between the pan-green and pan-blue political camps was further damaged.
However, the protests that took place at that time could still just about be defined as “contradictions among the people.”
That changed in 2005, when Lien went to Beijing for talks with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even though China had missiles aimed at Taiwan. The two parties issued a joint communique announcing that they would join hands to oppose Taiwan independence.
In this way, the KMT escalated what had been a “contradiction among the people” to the level of a “contradiction between ourselves and the enemy” that required recourse to outside intervention. When it came to the 2008 presidential election, the KMT and the CCP launched an even more obvious two-pronged attack against the DPP.
Once the KMT started treating its rivalry with the DPP as a “contradiction between ourselves and the enemy,” it opened itself up to all manner of incriminations. If the KMT did not act as a loyal opposition party when it was out of office, can it be counted on to act as a loyal government? If it did not, it cannot very well expect the DPP to act as a loyal opposition party.
At least two things that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has done justify the opposition parties’ decision to not play the loyal opposition role.
Policies adopted by Taiwan’s two main parties over the last decade and more have often not been based on any consistent core values. On the contrary, their basis for adopting or rejecting policies often changes according to whether they are in government or in the opposition.
This is clearly true of Ma and his team. For example, when the KMT was in opposition it was against arms purchases and did not want Taiwan to allow the sale of meat from animals fed with leanness-enhancing drugs. However, when the KMT returned to power it completely reversed its positions on these issues. If the ruling party is disloyal to its own values, then it has no grounds for telling the opposition parties to behave loyally.
The second problem is that Ma’s handling of certain major policies has caused considerable rifts within the KMT. A key point is that he has from the outset not been forthright with members of his own party. Two examples are the issues of US beef and the proposed capital gains tax on stock-market transactions. Regardless of why the Ma administration took the positions it did on these issues, the difficult circumstances the government has encountered or how committed it is to implementing these policies, the problem is that Ma’s team failed right from the start to lay its cards on the table for KMT members to see and this lack of transparency has caused a fierce backlash within the party. If Ma cannot be honest with members of his own party and if his approach to governance causes even KMT members to act disloyally, then how can he reasonably expect the opposition parties to act in a loyal manner?
Recently, Ma has made several requests to meet with the chair of the DPP, on the grounds that he wants to end the standoff between the government and opposition. With this move, he is at least making an effort to win over public opinion, though it is uncertain how effective this effort will be.
On the other hand, it could be that Ma really appreciates the severity of the situation that prevails in Taiwan and abroad and genuinely wants to see the opposition parties become more loyal so that government and opposition can deal with the nation’s difficulties together. If that is the case, then Ma’s move to issue open invitations is only likely to worsen government-opposition enmity and widen the gap between the two sides.
If Ma wants the DPP to play the role of a loyal opposition, then he should avoid making statements that seek to manipulate public opinion. What he really needs to do is to confront the root cause of this Taiwanese tradition of disloyal opposition.
The first thing he should do is come clean about how the KMT and the CCP have worked together to combat the DPP. The second is to define his core ideology and plan out government policies accordingly. Finally, he should sincerely apologize for having gone back on his word on various issues.
Making these concessions would be worthwhile if they helped the government to run more smoothly. Beyond that, if these actions managed to turn around the Taiwanese political tradition by which any party that is voted out of office immediately becomes a disloyal opposition, that in itself would ensure that Ma’s name goes down in history.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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