TAIPEI — The ground heaved and shook in Taiwan’s turbulent political landscape last Tuesday, and by the time the dust had cleared after the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Tang Fei, President Chen Shui-bian’s 5 month-old model for government — in his words, “a government for all the people” — had collapsed. “Not collapsed. Died,” said Joseph Wu, professor of political science at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “You can rebuild something that has collapsed. You cannot rebuild this. It is dead.”
Not that Chen would now want to rebuild a model of government that performed so dismally in such a short space of time. Since he took the reins of power from the Kuomintang on May 20, Chen’s “government for all the people” has isolated and frustrated his own Democratic Progressive Party, come dangerously close to causing a constitutional crisis, and confused the electorate about who exactly is in control of Taiwan.
It is all too easy to dismiss Chen with the benefit of hindsight. When he took office, he was staring down the gun barrel of an irate China threatened by the new government’s leanings toward independence as well as a hostile KMT-controled legislature angry that the party had been dumped from power after 51 years of uninterrupted rule.
Chen’s solution to the problems that lay before him was to abandon partisan politics and with it the notion of forming a minority government — a position he believed unworkable and dangerous for cross-strait relations — and try to form a government that appealed to all.
He realized his vision by overlooking his own party members for the position of prime minister and selected the 68-year-old KMT official Tang. It was a bold decision and one that was well received at the time.
Tang, a gentle, yet straght-talking former army and air force chief, is committed to reunification, and holds to the KMT’s sacred mission to reunify with the mainland. Indeed, it was on the issue of cross-strait relations that Tang excelled as premier.
“It was very risky time,” said Bau Tzong-ho, a political scientist at National Taiwan University in Taipei, speaking of the early days of the administration. “Beijing was very suspicious of Chen and his proindependence party and were threatening to use force if necessary. The appearance of Tang as prime minister made them think twice. . . . Now the leaders in Beijing are more rational. Tang has done his job.”
But the cross-strait issue was just one part of the job description. Tang was also supposed to use the respect he had in his own party to bring in opposition votes for the government. That never happened.
From the start, the odds were stacked against him. In April he underwent surgery on a benign tumor between his lungs, only to return to work too early and fall victim to an infection that again hospitalized him. When he did finally recover, his party cadres showed no sympathy. They called him a traitor to the cause, suspended him from the party and bullied him mercilessly during question time in the legislature.
“He was a cushion,” said Wu. “He took all the blows from the legislature that were really aimed at Chen. It was a tough job.” Last Tuesday, it became too much for the ailing prime minister. He handed in his notice, appealing for Chen to accept on the grounds of ill health. It was not the first time that Tang had publicly offered his resignation. He did it in July when he accepted responsibility for a bungled rescue attempt that led to the drowning of four riverbed workers in Taiwan’s south. Chen rejected the resignation then, but accepted it this time.
The reasons for Chen’s change of heart appear to have little to do with Tang’s failing health. According to political observers, there were other forces at play, the most important being the breakdown of relations between the Cabinet and the Presidential Office.
In Taiwan’s semipresidential system, the president has the power to appoint the prime minister, but has no real powers himself in the face of a hostile legislature. “He can neither dissolve the legislature, nor put disputes between the Cabinet and the legislature to a public referendum,” said Julian Kuo, a political scientist at Soochow University. “So he has no real bargaining chip to keep the legislature in check. He can only exercise his influence through the premier and his Cabinet.”
Under the KMT, the party held an absolute majority in the legislature and the system worked seamlessly, with all key decisions flowing down from the top and the legislature rubber-stamping most bills. But Chen has had no such luxuriy. With a minority government, he has learned quickly how limited the presidential powers in Taiwan actually are, and how those powers are further eroded should the prime minister refuse to toe the line. This proved to be the case. It became apparent after a few months in office that Tang and Chen were at loggerheads on a number of key issues, and that Tang was leaving DPP policymakers out of the loop.
The most divisive issue, and one that has grabbed the public imagination, is the building of the island’s fourth nuclear power plant. The plant is already one-quarter complete and has already cost more than $2.5 billion. Tang has been a vocal supporter of the plant, while Chen and his party are committed to having it scrapped. The dispute between the executive and the president’s office has caused the stock market to plummet and foreign investors to flee. On Monday, Tang, who, as premier, had the final say in the decision, said he would quit if he were forced to dismantle the project. Perhaps aware of the crisis that would unfold if he overruled Chen, he resigned the following day.
Chen learned his lesson. On Wednesday he appointed as premier his campaign manager and right-hand man, 62-year-old party stalwart Chang Chun-hsiung. The appointment signals the end to any pretense of an inclusive model of government and a return to Taiwan’s fiercely partisan political system.
Yet Chen’s troubles are far from over. The KMT continues to stall the budget in the legislature and are now threatening a vote of no confidence for the new premier. That move that could force the president to bring forward next year’s crucial legislative elections.
Some do not fear the uncertainty. “We had to bite the bullet,” said Parris Chang, a DPP legislator, “We never received the benefits of Tang’s cooperation in the legislature anyway, so not much has changed except now we have a prime minister who is closely attuned with the president. Together they can give the country a more certain direction, show them who is in charge, and show them what the DPP is capable of.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.