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Lai Ching-teh's Strongman Politics: A Crisis for Taiwan's Democracy

icon2015/01/16
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 Lai Ching-teh's Strongman Politics: A Crisis for Taiwan's Democracy

 

China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)

A Translation

January 15, 2015

 

A Summary

Let us not mince words. Tainan Mayor William Lai Ching-teh's strongman political style has won the applause of many. It could be 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 and the public afford to ignore this?

 

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See full text of the editorial below

 

Taiwan underwent a quiet revolution in the 1990 andt established democratic institutions. But restrained by traditional cultural factors, the foundation of democracy remained unstable. During the past decade populism has reared its ugly head and democratic values have been called into question. For 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 impact will these strongmen have on Taiwan's democracy? That is a question well worth watching.

 

Strongman politics does not necessarily mean authoritarian rule. Rather it refers to strong-willed political leaders who overstep, distort, or alter democratically enacted laws and institutions, and who are not, or barely constrained by checks and balances emanating from public’s elected deliberate bodies. On many key issues, especially when the strongman insist to assert his own will and impose 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 already shinning political star appeared to be on the rise. Lai Ching-teh assumed an arrogant “If not me, then who else?” stance. Within the DPP, he assumed the role of an elder. He shared his ruling experience with newly-elected DPP county chiefs and city mayors. Outside the party, he relentlessly blasted New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu. These political moves reflected Lai's political ambitions. As long as he follows a decent path, that was understandable. But following the city council speaker election Lai Ching-teh revealed the most serious defect in his political character. He hijacked public opinion, imposed his personal will, and ignored the coordination and compromise inherent in politics. His most serious problem was his egocentric 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 commission or bureau of law and regulations of Tainan City Hall. The DPP candidate, a former speaker supported by Lai Ching-the was long perceived as Lai's rubber stamp. When Lai's candidate lost the election, the Green camp public opinion was in an uproar. Lai Ching-teh evaded controversy over his political style and invoked "vote-buying" as an excuse 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 authorities by which one branch checks the other. An elected mayor has his authority. 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 make or break the next speaker. Once the speaker candidate controversy was settled, he attempted to exploit public support for him to reverse the outcome of the council speaker election. This was a case of a new strongman abusing this executive authority to interfere with legislative authority.

 

Secondly, the alleged speaker election bribery case had yet to be prosecuted, nor had a sentence been handed down. Yet Lai concluded that the new speaker was guilty. This was his pretext for boycotting the meetings and thus applying pressure on the city council and the justice system. This was a case of a new strongman interfering the judicial power with his executive authority. Thirdly, and most seriously, the alleged vote buying case have yet to be sorted out in the city council, but Lai Ching-teh has already used it as an excuse to say 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 authority of the City Council. 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 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 huge vote 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 examine whether public opinion is merely illusory, manipulated. Not to say about rational deliberations and interpellations in the City Council 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 new political values such as civic consciousness, civil society, and deliberative 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. Tainan Mayor William Lai Ching-teh's strongman political style has won the applause of many. It could be 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 and the public afford to ignore this?

 

(Courtesy of China Times Editorial)

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