The “September strife” surprise attack launched by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) against Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) has turned out to be a failure. The farce has sent Ma’s approval rating down to 9.2 percent and made him an object of ridicule in the media and on the Internet. The whole affair represents a very dark cloud for Ma, but it has a silver lining for the legal system.
Here are five reasons for saying so: First, the affair has established that the independence of the judiciary must brook no interference. Neither the legislative speaker nor the leader of an opposition party can get away with improper lobbying of and interference in the judiciary. Any attempts to abuse influence will be investigated, regardless of political titles. That is where Ma drew his red line. He wants to punish one transgressor to deter all others and that is a positive development for upholding judicial independence.
Second, court decisions and verdicts must be respected. Ma wants to get Wang out of the way. It only took 10 hours for the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Central Evaluation and Discipline Committee to revoke Wang’s party membership and for the Central Election Commission to announce that Wang had forfeited his status as a legislator-at-large. Nevertheless, when Wang applied to the courts for a provisional injunction to put these measures on hold and it was granted, Ma had no choice but to respect the court’s decision. Despite being president and KMT chairman, Ma has not been able to claim that because the KMT and the commission have both announced that Wang is no longer a KMT legislator, he can no longer serve as legislative speaker.
Third, due process of law must be respected. The main reason for Ma’s failure is that he has been too heavy-handed. He made his move just as Wang went abroad to attend his daughter’s wedding, which made people feel that Ma was lacking in grace. Originally the committee meant to deliberate on Wang’s case in his absence, denying Wang any chance to defend himself, but this gave everyone the impression that Ma was waging a political war.
Fourth, although Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘) showed the court warrant to prove that the tapping of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus whip Ker Chien-ming’ (柯建銘) telephone was legal, the surveillance of the legislative speaker’s telephone conversations with Ker brought back too many bad memories of the KMT’s authoritarian rule. The Communication Security and Surveillance Act (通訊保障及監察法) may be amended to further restrict the requirements and scope for wiretapping by prosecutors and the police.
Fifth, Ma’s attempt to remove Wang has made the public pay attention to the constitutional relationship between the president and the legislature. Since we have a semi-presidential system, the president must accept monitoring by the popularly elected legislature. If the president can remove the legislative speaker — who is charged with monitoring the president — by manipulating internal party regulations, he puts himself above the legislature, directing it with the help of party disciplinary measures. Such a setup is a breeding ground for tyranny. More than 30 academics specializing in public law have issued a statement saying that such behavior damages the Constitution.
When the current storm has passed, Taiwan must engage in a deeper debate about the constitutional system. Ma’s “September strife” is unacceptable, but serendipitously, it has also offered a great opportunity to improve the rule of law and the constitutional system in Taiwan.