Frustrated by the legislative gridlock over the cross-strait service trade agreement, hundreds of students stormed the Legislative Yuan on Tuesday night. Earlier that day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had cut short the review process and sent the pact directly to the plenary session. Not only did the KMT’s heavy-handed action fail to break the deadlock, but it also destroyed public trust in the process and led to wider protests.
Taiwan’s democracy has been in deadlock for some time. The governing and opposition parties insist on sticking to their guns, with each side claiming to have the public’s support, but seeming uninterested in reaching a consensus through democratic means, such as communication, debate or by vote. They neither go along with the majority nor respect the minority. There they stand, on opposite sides of a great divide, refusing to budge, unable to close the distance between them. And in the middle, they continue stacking up the dry wood, waiting for the next spark to set the whole thing alight. From outside, Taiwan appears to enjoy democratic freedom, but this democracy, in its nature and measure, is flawed. This is the main reason Taiwan is finding it so hard to progress.
Democracy is the rule of the people, for the people. People elect politicians to form a government to manage public affairs. The way the government governs, or how elected representatives hold it to account, should be done with the public will in mind through the democratic means of communication and debate. Should one side fail to bring the other around, the matter at hand should be voted upon. As a final resort, the issue should be put to a direct vote by the electorate.
However, the opposing sides here either cannot, or will not, try to convince the other, as they are only interested in outmaneuvering their opponents. Last week, the Democratic Progressive Party brought the legislative committee meeting to an end as soon as it had begun, calling for an adjournment until the afternoon, although nothing had been debated. What happened to its insistence on reviewing the agreement clause by clause? No wonder the KMT accused it of only being interested in boycotting the whole process, rather than conducting a proper review.
This week, the KMT announced it was cutting short the review and sent the agreement straight to the plenary session, again without any debate and running counter to legislative procedures.
In a democracy, a political deadlock should be solved through democratic means. The parties had previously reached a consensus that the agreement would be reviewed clause by clause — and not voted on as a whole — and would not automatically go into effect if no consensus is reached after three months. All legislative caucuses are to meet and iron out their differences. However, the Presidential Office and Cabinet have set the end of the current legislative session as the deadline for the passage of the pact, and the KMT caucus, in its haste to meet the deadline, forced the agreement through on Tuesday. This has only caused the protests to escalate, driving the opposition and members of the public to take to the streets.
The service trade agreement is a major piece of legislation. Neither side wants to back down. Each feels there are good reasons for it to be passed, and good reasons to block it. These reasons have not been fully expressed or noted in the legislature. Because of the legislature’s failings, the whole affair has spilled out onto the streets, when it should have been dealt with on the legislative floor. However, the legislature cannot insist on passing the legislation in its entirety or sending it to the next stage without properly discussing it. The best way is to let lawmakers express their positions and rationale for supporting or opposing the agreement, and then vote on it and make a historical record of the decision. If the legislature fails to break this deadlock, the public will let their voices be heard come the election.