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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Legislative ‘reform’ populist assault

Legislative ‘reform’ populist assault

Less than a month into William Lai’s (賴清德) presidency, domestic politics saw dramatic turmoil over the legislature’s new reforms that would grant it expanded powers to investigate and question, with punitive force behind it. The controversial amendments are being contested for several reasons. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) says it would seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of the bills.

The Constitutional Court is likely to be where the next battle over the reforms would be fought. Academia Sinica law institute research professor Su Yen-tu (蘇彥圖) warned against attempts to undermine the authority and trust in the grand justices, adding that it is a common tactic from the playbook of “authoritarian populists”: attacking independent or neutral institutions such as the media and the judiciary to exacerbate political polarization. As all of the serving grand justices were nominated by former president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), it would be an easy vector of attack for the opposition to label them as biased.

In recent years, the populists’ challenge to democratic systems has been a popular trend in the study of democracy. Charismatic leaders such as former US president Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have shown how vulnerable democracies can be in the face of their divisive politics. Despite their diverging interests and political ideologies, populists share a few key defining traits.

They are “anti-establishment” and campaign against perceived corrupt “political elites.” They are illiberal in that they demand “efficiency” in their pursuit of optically grand political actions, often disregarding essential democratic principles and norms. Populists seek to centralize power through institutional reforms and erode accountabilities by weakening independent watchdogs, Su said.

The key figures that pushed for the legislative amendments illustrated the two paths populist leaders would take.

First, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus leader Fu Kun-chi (傅?萁) announced the KMT’s intention to form a special investigation unit targeting “DPP government corruption” right after the passage of the amendments. All while claiming indignantly that his prior criminal conviction for corruption was politically motivated. A framing that puts the ruling DPP into the titular role of the “corrupt elites” in a typical populist fashion.

Second, Taiwan People’s Party caucus leader Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) bashed a reputable international megazine, The Economist, poisoning the well of legitimate potential concerns with the reforms raised by the magazne. He also said on Facebook that the DPP-leaning Liberty Times (sister paper of the Taipei Times) was “Taiwan’s People’s Daily.”

When asked about a potential unfavorable Constitutional Court ruling, Huang took a more moderate position. However, although advocating for restraint, he also said that there could be a potential conflict between a supposed “will of the people” and the court.

These populist-style narratives might seem innocuous, but they sow the seeds of hyperpolarization and social distrust. Strong-arming legislation further added to the issue as it shows a lack of respect for the legislative minority that represents just under half of the population.

Beyond the legislature, this intensive political clash is being fought in new online spaces. The online discourse was dominated by live streams and podcasts from pundits and politicians. The lawmakers themselves streamed constantly during the legislative proceedings, providing commentaries and analysis of their own.

This trend presented a highly sensationalized image of politics built around live reaction and instant transmission. This allowed politicians such as Huang to assert their narrative directly without having to go through slower traditional media. Although Huang drew the line at attacking the Constitutional Court, his KMT counterparts might not show the same restraint.

While counter-narratives by the DPP and its supporters are relevant, this trend still weakens trust in the media. Media outlets are increasingly being written off as “partisan flanks.” Should the same fate befall the Constitutional Court, it would no longer be a “red flag” warning us of a populist assault, but a dangerous political reality Taiwan’s young democratic system must face.

Lee Chi-en is pursuing a master’s degree in International Studies at National Chengchi University. His research focuses on democratic backsliding and legislative politics. He was also a Ministry of Foreign Affairs youth ambassador in 2019.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2024/06/15

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Beijing does not want to see president-elect Tsai Ing-wen [蔡英文] and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) succeed, a leading US-Asia expert said on Tuesday.

“It is not in their interests to have them succeed and this will shape the approach that Beijing takes to Taiwan in the future,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.