Around the middle of 2011, the US magazine Foreign Policy presented Taiwan’s legislature as one of five examples showing that “the United States isn’t the only country whose legislature just doesn’t work.”
A long tradition of chaos, pushing and shoving, attacks on the speaker’s podium, passing legislation that only benefits the legislators themselves, blocking budgets, closed-door negotiations, pushing through votes and so on is adding to the legislature’s bad reputation and making it an international laughing stock.
Together with unanimous party consensus over a recent controversial amendment to the Accounting Act (會計法), the latest legislative brawl has created a great deal of public anger and resentment.
According to Article 68 of the Constitution: “The Legislative Yuan shall hold two sessions each year and shall convene of its own accord. The first session shall last from February to the end of May and the second session from September to the end of December. Whenever necessary a session may be prolonged.”
Further, according to Article 69: “In any of the following circumstances, the Legislative Yuan may hold an extraordinary session: 1. At the request of the President of the Republic; 2. Upon the request of not less than one-fourth of its members.”
Before the fourth legislature, which was elected in 1999, extraordinary sessions were very rare. Starting with the fourth legislature, such sessions became more common.
The fourth, fifth and sixth legislatures convened two or three extraordinary sessions and the seventh legislature held six such sessions.
The current eighth legislature is increasing the number of extraordinary sessions, and if lawmakers now call a second extraordinary session they will have held three extraordinary sessions in three ordinary sessions, in effect making extraordinary sessions a permanent part of the legislative process.
If legislators are willing to work overtime or hold extraordinary sessions outside the periods specified in the Constitution because there are too many bills or budget proposals for them to review, or because there are important matters that need to be discussed, the public will, of course, be grateful for their hardworking spirit.
However, the public is unlikely to appreciate it if lawmakers are only holding these extraordinary sessions simply because they are not working hard enough during the ordinary sessions.
Citizen Congress Watch’s data shows that during the current legislature, committees met for an average of 4.2 hours each meeting during the first ordinary session, five hours during the second session and 4.8 hours during the third, although the report for the latest session has not yet been published.
Given that most people have to work eight hours a day, this is certain to cause envy.
Some legislators will of course say that they have to attend coordination meetings, weddings and funerals, participate in TV debates, liaise with voters and so on, so while they are only in meetings for five hours each day, they are in practice working 16-hour days or more.
The fact remains that the limited time spent in meetings is one of the reasons the legislature cannot finish reviewing bills and budget proposals during its ordinary session. Issues on which opinions are deeply divided delay the legislative agenda even more.
When dealing with major public policy issues, rational and comprehensive communication is paramount. However, mutual trust between the government and the opposition is at an all-time low.
Legislators from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) think that opposition legislators are opposing them for opposition’s sake, while they use their legislative majority to see their policies through to the end, placing the KMT’s goals above all else. In doing so, they are forgetting that legislators should carry out their duties independently and in pursuit of the nation’s best interests.
The opposition parties, on the other hand, feel that their opposition serves to highlight the injustice and unfairness of the government’s behavior and that there is no reason for them to shrink back.
However, seeing the violence play out on our TV screens, we should not be surprised if the public are beginning to doubt the value of democracy.
Legislators may have sustained minor injuries during their clashes, but they are dealing a devastating blow to the public’s view of democracy.
We can only hope that the public will be willing to spend time gaining a rational understanding of each political party’s views, rather than blindly accepting and being loyal to everything their own party says.
That is the only way for Taiwan to become a democracy in which we can discuss and debate policy rather than fight it out.
If we fail in that, there will be no end to the legislature’s extraordinary sessions.
Chang Hung-lin is executive director of Citizen Congress Watch.
Translated by Perry Svensson