Monday, February 25, 2008

Time-out for lawmakers

Taiwan party pledges a new civility

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, February 22, 2008

Taiwan's pro-independence party has called a "time out" on brawling in the Legislature ahead of the island's March 22 presidential vote. But observers say it is too early to tell whether the truce will hold.

The island's law-making body is notorious for its bad behavior, with shoving matches, food fights, hair pulling and even fist fights par for the course for all parties.

Last year, one female legislator lobbed a shoe at the speaker in a fit of pique; another snatched away and chewed up a bill she did not like in May 2006.

But now the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party says it will play nice in the new legislative session that opened Friday. The DPP still controls Taiwan's presidency but suffered a severe setback in legislative elections last month, and has yet to fully regroup.

"We have no intention of having any hard collision with the Kuomintang right now," said Lai I-chung, the party's deputy director of international affairs, in a phone interview on Friday, referring to the rival Nationalist Party, or KMT. "It's not worth it to launch those kind of fireworks anymore. We want a smooth election and for the Legislature to perform its duties."

If that mood holds, it would be a sign of growing maturity in Taiwan's young democracy. It could also pave the way for an end to nearly eight years of legislative gridlock.

One KMT insider, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he thought the DPP's move was just a short-term gambit ahead of the vote next month.

"Before the election, the DPP won't start any conflicts, because it's good for the party's image and for its presidential candidate," he said, adding that the opening session Friday proceeded smoothly. Once the election is over, all bets are off, he said.

Some analysts say, however, that the truce may be more a reflection of the DPP's low morale, after its poor showing in the recent legislative elections, than a real change in approach.

"The party's like a horse without a head - there's no real leader, and no direction," said Antonio Chiang, a media commentator and former official in the DPP government. "It's not that they won't fight; it's that they don't know what to fight for. They're confused and waiting for the election."

Indeed, the pro-independence party is showing signs of strain as its presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, trails in public opinion polls. Earlier this week President Chen Shui-bian suggested he might call an emergency "defensive referendum" if the Legislature does not put forward its own compromise referendum on joining the United Nations, according to press reports. But Hsieh does not support such a "defensive" referendum, nor does most of the DPP caucus, Chiang said.

Still, many analysts say the Legislature is likely to be a kinder, gentler one, if only because of numbers. The one that convened Friday has only 113 seats, after changes that halved it from 225.

The DPP holds only 27 seats, which means fewer troops to marshal in skirmishes against a far larger KMT caucus.

The new system also requires broader support, giving legislators an incentive to moderate their tempers. Those who act out with fists, thrown lunchboxes or shoes are now more likely to be punished at the ballot box, said the DPP's Lai. "The constraints come from the new electoral system. It discourages actions like that," he said.

Still, Lai warned that peace in the Legislature would depend on whether the KMT respects the minority view or ignores the DPP's olive branch and abuses its majority. "A lot depends on how the KMT responds," he said.

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