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Taiwan’s new president Lai must unify a divided population

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Supporters of the DPP gather in front of the Legislative Yuan to protest forced vote of KMT and TPP regarding the bill deliberation in Taipei, Taiwan, 21 May 2024 (Photo: Reuters/Ichiro Ohara).

In Brief

Taiwan's newly elected president, Lai Ching-te, faces a challenging relationship with the opposition-led Legislative Yuan. The disputes have centred on a proposal for stronger legislative oversight of the Executive Yuan. The proposed reforms have been accused of pushing Taiwan towards authoritarianism, but may in fact help to increase accountability and strengthen Taiwan's democracy. It is crucial for President Lai to carefully manage the relationship between the executive and legislative branches and promote unity rather than division in order to preserve Taiwan’s democracy and international standing.

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As Taiwan welcomed its new president Lai Ching-te on 20 May 2024, the political atmosphere was charged with both anticipation and apprehension. Taiwan stands at a crucial juncture, with its future hinging on how the relationship evolves between the newly elected administration and the Legislative Yuan — Taiwan’s highest legislative organ.

Recent brawls among lawmakers over parliamentary reform underscore the role this executive–legislative dynamic will play in determining whether Taiwan advances its democratic governance or goes backward. Taiwan will also need to to explain to its democratic allies what its parliamentary reform entails and why it matters to Taiwan’s democracy.

As President Lai takes office, he confronts a legislature where his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), does not hold a majority — a stark contrast to the situations faced by his predecessors Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou. Since the Legislative Yuan convened in February 2024, the dynamics between the opposition-led legislature and the Executive Yuan, now headed by Lai’s DPP, have been challenging. The central question is whether Lai will address these challenges and propose a framework for cooperation with the opposition.

At the heart of the dispute in the Legislative Yuan are the proposed reforms to its powers. The Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have joined forces, proposing that the Legislative Yuan needs stronger oversight powers over the Executive Branch. The DPP proposed a similar bill in 2012, a fact well-documented in the Legislative Yuan, before gaining a legislative majority. But now that the DPP has held executive power for eight years and is poised for another four year term, it is reluctant to see these powers restricted by an opposition-led legislature.

The opposition majority in the Legislative Yuan is intent on scrutinising the actions of the Lai administration. The resolution of disputes within the Legislative Yuan will largely depend on President Lai’s approach to governance. He can rebuild trust by extending an olive branch through power-sharing with the opposition, or he could choose to continue the ideological contest.

The Legislative Yuan has passed opposition-backed amendments to the Act Governing the Legislative Yuan’s Powers and the Criminal Code, that aim to criminalise acts deemed as contempt of the legislature. These acts include refusing to answer questions from lawmakers, providing indefinite responses or openly questioning the authority or integrity of the legislature. These measures are intended to uphold the dignity and authority of the legislature by holding government officials accountable.

While some scholars criticise these reforms as unconstitutional and a threat pushing Taiwan towards authoritarianism, similar reforms were proposed and supported by the same people and the DPP in 2012. The differences between the 2012 DPP reform proposal and the 2024 opposition-proposed bill are almost negligible. The new bill states that contempt of legislative power can only be confirmed by the general assembly of the Legislative Yuan, with a majority registered vote replacing a secret ballot, increasing accountability. A convicted individual can appeal to the judicial system, with the final decision resting with the judiciary.

Some in Taiwan have protested against the reform, though other democracies have similar frameworks that allow legislative bodies to oversee the executive. These systems ensure diffusion of power, with each branch holding the authority and responsibility to check the other, maintaining a balanced democratic state. Enhancing the Legislative Yuan’s powers to check the Executive Branch could align Taiwan with practices in long-standing democracies like the United States. Dialogue about legislative oversight is not just about legal reform — it’s about reinforcing trust in Taiwan’s political system.

Polarisation over China in Taiwan has led to the manipulation of anti-China sentiment in the debate about governance, with protests outside the Legislative Yuan portrayed by Western media as a dispute between pro-China and anti-China factions. Western media has failed to see the issue in the history of Taiwan’s democracy, focusing instead on connecting the reform to the perceived threat from China. This selective perception overlooks the internal political dynamics and historical context that shape Taiwan’s legislative reforms. The unwillingness to work across party lines is seen as a propaganda race, misleading outsiders about the true nature of the reforms.

As Taiwan contemplates these changes, it has to consider carefully not just the immediate effects of the new laws, but their long-term impact on the island’s democratic fabric. Any actions perceived as suppressing dissent could be exploited by external actors, notably Beijing, to criticise or undermine Taiwan’s democracy. The stakes are high, and impact not only domestic affairs but also Taiwan’s international relations and diplomatic posture.

The future of Taiwan’s domestic politics and international identity will be shaped by how President Lai manages the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. The opposition must focus on executive accountability and support policies that benefit the country.

Taiwanese citizens, including the opposition, share the same hope — that the new president will serve with utmost dedication, abide by the Constitution and faithfully fulfil his duties to protect Taiwan. As Taiwan faces the challenge posed by China, Taiwan united will stand strong, while divided, it is weakened.

James Wu is a KMT legislator-at-large for the Republic of China and serves as the co-chair of the Judiciary and Organic Laws Committee of the Legislative Yuan. He is a former prosecutor and lawyer.

Dennis LC Weng is Associate Professor of Political Science at Sam Houston State University, Foreign Policy Consultant and Founding Chief Executive Officer of the Asia Pacific Peace Research Institute.

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