President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has received a lot of praise for appointing former Tainan mayor William Lai (賴清德) as premier, and her support ratings have rebounded sharply.
During an interview with the Central News Agency, Tsai said that her and Lai’s political experiences complement each other and that “it is not a bad thing for two strong personalities to work together as long as we complement each other administratively and functionally in the division of labor.”
Her remarks have cleared some of the public’s doubts, which shows her awareness of people’s high expectations that the two work closely together.
Compared with a presidential or a parliamentary system, people often question whether there is a balance of powers and accountability in Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, and whether the system is prone to operational problems.
Administrative operations must be top-down — functioning as smoothly as the body directing the arms and the arms directing the fingers — to achieve policy goals. In a semi-presidential system, the president and premier might shine equally bright, propose their own policies and stifle policy implementation.
Taiwan’s president is elected in a popular election, while the premier is appointed by the president. The public is the source of the president’s power, and the president is the source of the premier’s power.
In this semi-presidential system, there is a difference between the president and the premier, both in systemic and power terms, so there is not a problem with both shining equally as bright.
However, the premier is also accountable to the legislature.
After the president and premier form policy together, the premier should represent the administration before the legislature. Even if the president is responsible for national defense, diplomacy and cross-strait affairs, the premier should represent the administration’s entire policy before the Legislative Yuan to avoid excluding those matters from legislative oversight.
Based on this logic of power and accountability, the premier should follow the president in internal administrative operations, but represent the entire administration before the legislature.
Some say that Taiwan’s president is a “super-president” who enjoys power without accountability, as the president does not answer to the legislature, but the president is elected by the public and answers to them.
However, laws and budgets are decided by the legislature, and retired presidents are often involved in lawsuits — both of which make it difficult to consider them super-presidents.
The president also has to report the state of the nation to the legislature, which highlights the presence of legislative oversight, although question-and-answer sessions with the president, a controversial issue, are not constructive if they turn into mere quiz shows. They could potentially outshine the regular question-and-answer sessions with the premier, which might cause the legislature to demote such sessions.
Each political system has its benefits and drawbacks. After several rounds of constitutional amendments, a certain operational logic of power and accountability has developed within the semi-presidential system. Poor interaction between the president and the premier might be a matter of poor political skill rather than a problem with power-accountability logic.
Then again, is there any system of governance that does not suffer from a lack of political skill when it comes to interactions among politicians?
Ho Hsin-chuan is a professor at National Chengchi University’s Department of Philosophy.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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