In the past few days some people have begun to voice their dissatisfaction over Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) handling of the response to Typhoon Soudelor. Supporters of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) initiated a campaign on Facebook to recall Ko. Afterward, as predicted, many people complained that the threshold to achieve recall is too high.
In 2013, the Constitution 133 Alliance — later renamed the Constitution Citizen Group — was formed. We sought to make use of rights bestowed upon us by the Constitution to recall specific politicians from office, so they would never again dare to neglect their duties or hold the electorate in disdain. Unfortunately, we fell short by 1,686 signatories at the second stage of the recall process. However, this civic movement paved the way for the Appendectomy Project, which was established last year and has opened a new chapter in the recall movement. Both of these recall movements have deepened and consolidated Taiwan’s democracy.
Democracy takes on many forms. The democracy that Taiwanese enjoy is an improvement on the Martial Law era. However, under the so-called blue-green adversarial system of politics, many closely held democratic values and policies — such as the power for the public to recall its politicians — often lack absolute, quantifiable values to control that system. It is because of a lack of absolute values that apply to all that the above- mentioned campaigns to recall pan-blue politicians failed to excite pan-blue voters. It is only when a green-leaning politician becomes a target that it suddenly dawns on pan-blue voters that the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法) defies public opinion.
At the creation stages many of the designs in Taiwan’s democratic political system, such as the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act, often lack direction. Then, as it is implemented, an inordinate amount of scheming takes place which gradually causes a qualitative change in democracy. Added to this, the seeds of Taiwan’s democracy were sown on barren ground and polluted soil: It is easy to see why time and again, the flowers of Taiwanese democracy grow into abnormal, twisted specimens.
Taiwan has never suffered from a lack of debate related to the strengthening of its democracy. Nevertheless, it took last year’s Sunflower movement to integrate and stimulate the democratic momentum. Following a widespread deliberative democratic process throughout the nation, in addition to a far-
reaching online movement, we can see there is hope for democracy. Taiwanese youth have started to consider what rights citizens of a democratic nation should possess. Taiwan’s democracy has changed.
The public has recaptured the right to interpret and define democratic politics so that the political sphere might never again be the private domain of politicians. Some of those politicians who are beneficiaries of the patron-client system — both those we are familiar with and newcomers — faced the biggest humiliation of their political careers last year. These are positive developments.
However, one only needs to look at the demons and ghosts that have emerged from the Pandora’s box opened by Ko following his election as Taipei mayor to understand why there are some people who are unable to restrain themselves from using a natural disaster to try and recall Ko, who is trying to to publicly expose the capital’s “man-made disasters.”
As for the elements that have corrupted democracy, the public must capitalize on the democratic momentum created last year and, during the run up to next year’s presidential election, redouble their efforts, press on with the clean up and repair the rotting and hollowed-out foundations of democracy. Otherwise, those candidates who cling to old power structures and who possess conflicting interests might glide into office and become part of the power structure. After a new government is formed, many bills and policies waiting to be amended or thrown out might once again become deadlocked.
Within the old power structure and its tangled web of conflicting interests, voters need to be especially wary of a particular type of candidate: Those with a foot in politics and business. In fact, this problem started back in the 1980s. Within government, business and media circles, there is a network of people who use the patron-client system to cover up for each other. However, problems arising from mixing politics with business have always been present.
Last year, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) nominated former vice president Lien Chan’s (連戰) eldest son, Sean Lien (連勝文), as the party’s candidate for the Taipei mayoralty: Three generations of civil servants, tens of billions of New Taiwan dollars of enrichment.
Let us put to one side the absurd situation of Sean Lien — a middle-aged man who has had everything served up to him on a platter and has never had to struggle — believing he had a right to take over the reins of managing the capital’s development based on the size of his father’s bank account.
The Lien family’s deeply hidden business interests involve a complex web of investments and financial transactions. It is not just the perfect example of the patron-client system at work, the Lien clan has also had a powerful impact on Taiwan’s democracy and made an impact on the appearance of fairness and justice within society.
It begs the question, for how much longer is this stitch-up between business and politics to continue before the public is roused from its reverie and realizes that phenomena such as Lien’s son standing for election has not just brought disgrace upon the KMT’s other electoral candidates and humiliation for its many party members; It is an insult to Taipei residents and to Taiwan’s democracy.
Fortunately, Taipei residents gave the Lien clan a taste of their own medicine and humiliated them at the ballot box. Voters were sending an emphatic message to Lien Chan: “Enough is enough,” but they were also sending a message to wider Taiwan: It is the end of the road for corporate-government collusion.
In fact, mixing politics and business is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that some people do not understand the notion of conflict of interest and it is this that has led to all the headlines. When you delve into these stories, it is only in the rare instance that nothing illegal has occurred and no rules have been broken. Back in 1985, during the 10th Credit Cooperative financial scandal, Taiwanese saw the corporate-political model exposed.
Politicians make use of their power and privilege to throw open the doors to the nation’s larder and when a bill comes along that could protect their own interests, they adopt it with relish. When the opportunity arises to take out a collateral loan, they do not hold back. This is because these politicians did not enter the legislature with a view to creating better institutions and reforming the system. Their sole motivation for entering politics was to benefit themselves.
The starting gun has been fired in the race for next year’s presidential and legislative elections. Following last year’s nine-in-one elections, the public is continuing to actively engage in the political debate. It is hoped that the result on election day next year might reflect two things: That the public continues to show concern for public affairs and that Taiwanese maintain an ardent desire for transparency in politics and for rights that are distributed to the people, for the people.
Neil Peng is a media commentator and legislative candidate for the New Power Party.
Translated by Edward Jones
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