Lai Ching-teh's Strongman Politics: A Crisis for Taiwan's Democracy
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 15, 2015
Executive Summary: Let us not mince words. Lai Ching-teh's strongman political style has won the applause of many. This is a reaction to the Ma government's impotence. Ma Ying-jeou lacked political courage and administrative finesse. That however, does not mean we should invoke the specter of populist politics, and create a new political strongman. Can Lai Ching-teh ignore this? Can the public ignore this?
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During the 1990s Taiwan underwent a quiet revolution. It established democratic institutions. But traditional cultural factors posed obstacles. The foundation remained unstable. During the past decade populism has reared its ugly head. Democratic values have been called into question. During the past two years, the Mainland Chinese political model has been affirmed by the international community. Strongman politics appears to be the new trend in global politics. Following Taiwan's nine in one elections, a wave of political strongman appeared. What effect will these strongmen have on Taiwan's democracy? That is a question well worth contemplating.
Strongman politics does not necessarily mean authoritarian rule. Rather it refers to strong-willed political leaders who distort or alter democratically enacted laws and institutions, and who are barely constrained by checks and balances. On many key issues, especially when the strongman asserts his own will and imposes his own decisions, elected authorities and legal procedures become dead letters.
During the nine in one elections, Lai Ching-teh won by a landslide. His political star appeared to be on the rise. Lai Ching-teh assumed an obdurate “If not me, then who?” stance. Within the party, he assumed the role of an elder. He shared his experience with newly elected county chiefs and city mayors. Without the party, he relentlessly blasted Eric Chu. These political moves reflected Lai's political ambitions. He was merely following the path of least resistance. That was understandable. But following the city council speaker election Lai Ching-teh revealed the most serious defect in his character. He hijacked public opinion, imposed his personal will, ignored the coordination and compromise inherent in politics. His most serious problem was his autocratic mindset, which trampled over democracy and the rule of law.
The Tainan City Council Speaker election controversy, had its roots in Lai Ching-teh's plan to seize total control over the city council. He would not merely exclude other factions. He would reduce the Tainan City Council to a regulatory agence of Tainan City. In local government political circles Lai Ching-teh's speaker candidate was long perceived as Lai's rubber stamp. When Lai's candidate lost the election, the green camp raised a hue and cry True to form, Lai Ching-teh evaded controversy. He invoked "vote-buying" as grounds for refusing to set foot in the city council chambers. This move merely intensified his first mistake.
In theory, under local self-government, the mayor and the city council represent a separation of powers by which one branch checks the other. An elected mayor has powers. But he must be subject to city council oversight. The mayor must remain accountable to the city council. Meanwhile, the city council retains autonomy over its internal affairs. The mayor may never and must never intervene. Lai Ching-teh provoked controversy during the speaker election. As mayor, he attempted to interfere with the city council's autonomy, and dictate who would be speaker candidates. Once the speaker candidate controversy was settled, he attempted to exploit public support for him as a person to reverse the outcome of the council speaker election. This was a case of a strongman abusing this executive authority to interfere with legislative authority.
Secondly, the speaker election bribery case had yet to be prosecuted. No verdict had been rendered. No sentence had been passed. Yet Lai concluded that the new speaker was guilty. This was his pretext for boycotting the proceedings and applying pressure on the city council and the justice system. This was a case of a new strongman interfering with administrative authority, and exceeding his brief. Thirdly, and most seriously, the facts of the vote buying case have yet to be sorted out in the city council. Lai Ching-teh said he "refused to set foot in the city council." He claimed he wanted to answer directly to the public. A new strongman abused his executive authority and interfered with legislature authority. He thumbed his nose at democratic institutions and established a negative precedent for the rule of law.
Under representative politics, the public oversees local government heads through elected representatives. This is the clearly defined in the constitution and in legislation. No one may arbitrarily alter this, no matter how much popular support he may enjoy, and no matter how many votes he may have received. So-called "direct oversight by the public" and "Open Government" are merely fig leaves for new strongman politics.
New strongman politics and new populist politics are two sides of the same coin. Populism exploits the concept of public opinion to lay claim to momentary popular support, override public policy, and trample over professionalism, the reconciliation of diverse interests, the achievement of a broad consensus, democracy, and transparency in decision-making. Lai Ching-teh relied on his high numbers and strong support to throw his weight around. He relied on this foundation to implement his strongman politics. Under nascent strongman politics, "public opinion" trumps democracy and professionalism. It leaves no room for deliberation or verification. It leaves no room to question whether public opinion is merely illusory “manufactured consent.” One can forget about rational discussion and multi-party consultation in order to arrive at an optimum solution.
Lai Ching-teh's "new strongman politics" and "new populist politics" remains nascent. But the danger is already apparent. Populism is not democracy. Strongman politics is contrary to citizenship, civil society, and the new values of democracy. This new strongman politics must be checked, corrected, and challenged. If it is not, then in two or three years civic consciousness and civil society will all come to naught. It will become a shadow of its former self. Such a barren society will destroy democracy and the rule of law, and yield the poisonous fruit of new strongman politics.
Let us not mince words. Lai Ching-teh's strongman political style has won the applause of many. This is a reaction to the Ma government's impotence. Ma Ying-jeou lacked political courage and administrative finesse. That however, does not mean we should invoke the specter of populist politics, and create a new political strongman. Can Lai Ching-teh ignore this? Can the public ignore this?