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Will Sunflowers Bloom Again? Legislative Reforms in Taiwan Attract Protest

Protests in the streets of Taipei, Photo by Su Chiao-hui

What is happening?

More than 30,000 people gathered in front of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral parliament, on Tuesday, to protest the push by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang; KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party to boost the legislature’s power. This massive assembly, marking a rocky start to the presidency of William Lai (Lai Ching-te; 賴清德) who was inaugurated the day before after winning an unprecedented third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was a response to a brawl which erupted in the chamber the previous week as the DPP accused the KMT and the TPP of attempting to force through the proposals while forgoing the customary consultation process.

The protests focus on the contents of the proposed amendments to the Law Governing the Legislative Yuan’s Power (立法院職權行使法) and the process in which the opposition parties (which together hold a majority in the legislature) have sought to promulgate them. The reforms would grant new prosecutorial powers to legislators who could summon private individuals, government officials, and others to question and demand that they disclose sensitive information, including documents with implications for national security. The DPP and protestors also criticized the opposition parties for blocking matching bills compiled by the DPP from being reviewed at committee meetings, conducting backroom dealings, and resorting to nontransparent voting procedures.


What is the broader picture?

In the January 2024 elections, the Democratic Progressive Party achieved a historic third consecutive victory in the presidential race while also losing control of the legislature. With 52 seats won by the KMT and 51 secured by Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), neither of Taiwan’s two major parties gained an absolute majority in the unicameral legislature, positioning the relatively new TPP with its eight legislators as the “critical minority” (關鍵少數). 

Reforms to grant the Legislative Yuan more power were a critical issue in the electoral campaign. All three parties represented in the chamber expressed their willingness to amend the legislature’s powers and procedures, but they disagreed on the scope of the changes.

The ongoing controversy surrounds three main changes proposed by the KMT and the TPP. Firstly, the president would be required to deliver an annual address before March 1 at the Legislature’s invitation and respond to lawmakers’ questions on the spot. Secondly, the legislature would gain prosecutorial powers, and penalties would be introduced for delays in responding to the parliament, concealing information, or providing false statements during an investigation, inquiry, or hearing. Thirdly, “contempt of the legislature” would become an offense punishable under the Criminal Code. Those critical of the current trajectory of reforms also point to procedural issues as the bills were not reviewed line by line in the Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee.

“They [KMT and TPP] further surpass the scope and power of parliamentary authority found in most other constitutional democracies, including allowing for government officials to be jailed simply for asking questions during hearings,” the DPP said in a statement signed by international scholars.

Taiwan’s civil society groups also remain vocal about criticizing the reforms proposed by the two opposition parties. The Taiwan Association of Human Rights asserted that the amendments would “effectively result in the legislative branch overstepping into executive functions, violating the fundamental principle of separation of powers in a democratic society.” Meanwhile, the Taiwan Bar Association accused the KMT of “wrecking the operating principles of Taiwan’s constitutional democracy” to pursue its own interests. It also urged lawmakers to abide by democratic principles and follow legislative procedures to ensure that bills receive legitimate scrutiny. 

Protests will resume on Friday when the legislature will continue the debates about amendments to its powers.


Why does it matter?

The conflict between the legislature, where the KMT and the TPP combined hold the majority of seats, and the executive may lead to a gridlock in Taiwan’s policy-making and implementation processes during the next four years. In his inauguration speech, Lai addressed the need for cohabitation: “The majority should respect the minority, while the minority accepts majority rule. Only then can we avoid conflict and maintain a stable and harmonious society.” At the same time, the Taiwanese political scene remains highly polarized, and prospects for streamlined inter-party policy coordination remain grim.

Additionally, watchers of cross-strait relations have previously pointed to the Legislative Yuan as a potential channel for China to exert its influence on Taiwan and its democratic institutions and processes. For example, exiled Chinese writer Hongbin Yuan (袁紅冰) asserted that Legislative Yuan speaker Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) and the majority leader Fu Kun-chi (傅崐萁) remain influenced by the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. Consequently, the current controversy highlights the importance of scrutinizing Taiwanese politicians’ relations with political elites on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait.