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Brinksmanship, Taiwan-style

Asian Wall Street Journal

November 6, 2000

By Shelley Rigger. Ms. Rigger is an associate professor at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina and the author of "Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy" (Routledge, 1999).

Politicians in Taipei are playing their favorite game, the one called "Chicken." As usual, their wild hurtle toward a head-on collision is scaring bystanders, even though someone almost certainly will swerve in time to avoid a crash.

Still, while it is possible to see the confrontation between President Chen Shui-bian and the Kuomintang-dominated legislature as typical Taiwanese brinksmanship, this confrontation highlights some genuinely new political developments.

The immediate cause of the conflict is a policy dispute. Last week, Premier Chang Chun-hsiung announced the cabinet's decision to cancel Taiwan's partially built fourth nuclear power plant. Representatives from the KMT and People First Party, who helped to pass legislation appropriating funds for the plant, were furious, accusing President Chen of using his cabinet to illegally override their decision.

The fight over the nuclear plant is a symptom of a deeper problem: the unsettled balance of power between the DPP-led executive branch and the KMT-dominated legislature. One reason for the crisis is structural: Under divided government, Taiwan's constitution provides numerous outlets for confrontation, but few channels to encourage cooperation. A second reason is political: The KMT has adjusted poorly to its loss of executive power, while the DPP has yet to find a workable formula for constructive executive-legislative relations.

For 55 years, when the KMT controlled both the legislative and executive branches, Taiwan tended to function as a presidential system, with most initiatives emanating from the presidential office. Mr. Chen would like to follow this pattern, not least because his electoral mandate is fresher than that of the KMT-dominated legislature. In the hope of pacifying KMT legislators, he chose only a handful of DPP officials for his cabinet, and he selected a KMT heavyweight, former Defense Minister Tang Fei, as his premier.

From the moment Mr. Chen was inaugurated, KMT legislators made it clear that the new president should not expect their cooperation. Cabinet officials faced ferocious attacks during legislative questioning, and KMT legislators tried to drive Mr. Tang out of office in May and again in July. When Mr. Tang finally resigned in September, his erstwhile tormentors shed crocodile tears as they welcomed him back into the KMT fold.

Meanwhile, the legislature has rejected almost every significant legislative initiative brought forth by the cabinet, whether under Mr. Tang or his successor. KMT leaders have repeatedly stated that they believe the KMT should name the premier and cabinet, in effect reducing Mr. Chen's role to that of a figurehead. Recognizing that his efforts to create a cross-partisan government have failed, Mr. Chen decided to take the gloves off and confront the KMT directly. After Mr. Tang resigned, Mr. Chen replaced him with Chang Chun-hsiung, an experienced DPP legislator. The appointment signaled a shift to a more partisan government. One of Mr. Chang's first acts was to carry out a long-standing DPP policy objective -- cancellation of the fourth nuclear plant.

Opponents of the move have a number of counter-strategies. First, they could pass legislation overriding the decision and requiring the executive branch to complete the plant. Mr. Chen has said he would respect such legislation if it were passed. A second option would be to seek a judicial ruling on the matter. According to the KMT, the executive branch does not have the authority to cancel a project once the legislature has authorized the expenditure. Mr. Chen's office responds that legislative authorization does not mandate executive action. If the legality of these positions is contested, the two sides should take the matter to the Council of Supreme Justices for a decision.

A third measure available to the legislature is a no-confidence vote against Premier Chang. If such a measure were to pass, Chang's cabinet would be dissolved, and the president would be required to find a premier more acceptable to the legislature.

The KMT has so far rejected all of these remedies, preferring instead to launch a campaign to recall the president from office. This choice suggests the KMT's real goal is not to overturn the cabinet's decision on the nuclear power plant, but to attack Mr. Chen himself.

The choice of a recall effort also highlights the KMT's anxiety about its own popularity. In the event of a no-confidence vote, Mr. Chen would almost certainly exercise his right to dissolve the legislature. Were Taiwan to hold early elections, there is good reason to believe that both the DPP and James Soong's People First Party would gain seats at the KMT's expense.

Following through on the recall petition also carries risks, since the candidate most likely to win a new presidential election is not KMT leader Lien Chan, but Mr. Soong, who finished second in the March election. Indeed, this is one reason the KMT may not follow through on its recall threat.

The politics of the nuclear plant cancellation have diverted attention from important issues. Taiwan is in desperate need of a serious debate about sustainable development, and energy policy is a logical place to begin. Taiwan has one of the world's worst records on energy efficiency, despite its near total reliance on imported energy sources. In particular, Taiwan's industries are extraordinarily wasteful energy consumers. Under KMT governments, the state-run energy monopoly emphasized large-scale, centralized power generation, at the expense of efficiency and reliability in the electricity supply. When a single transmission tower toppled and cut power supplies to nearly all of Taiwan in July 1999, it exposed the fundamental weakness of Taiwan's power grid.

Along with energy policy, the Chen administration would like to raise the larger issue of how Taiwan can adjust its economic mix to accommodate the needs of its population without overtaxing the island's imperiled environment. A series of water-related disasters in southern Taiwan last summer illustrated the precariousness of Taiwan's ecosystem. Clearly, the island's air, land and water cannot support unlimited industrial development. A public discussion about how to balance economic growth and environmental protection is overdue.

The decision to cancel the fourth nuclear plant signaled the DPP's readiness to debate these issues. To the KMT, this signal was most unwelcome, as it threatens both the KMT's long-standing economic strategy and the interests of the party's most powerful supporters. Indeed, the most important reason for the KMT's furious reaction to the nuclear plant controversy is that by canceling the project, the government violated the cozy relationship between business and government that prevailed for five decades. The cancellation -- along with Mr. Chen's earlier decision not to construct a major dam in Meinung, in southern Taiwan -- shows that Mr. Chen's administration is willing to place other goals ahead of the economic interests of large companies.

The KMT is not alone in seeing the nuclear issue as a challenge to the iron triangle of KMT, state bureaucrats and big business. To many DPP activists and supporters, the fourth nuclear power plant embodies successive KMT governments' anti-democratic policy-making style. Organized opposition to the plant has raged for nearly 15 years, yet the Kuomintang never seriously considered alternatives. These passionate emotions will make it difficult for Mr. Chen to retreat, even in the face of a recall motion.

The KMT is unlikely to force Chen Shui-bian out of office, and Mr. Chen is unlikely to deal a deathblow to the fourth nuclear power plant. Eventually, both sides will swerve. But there will be losers in this high-stakes Chicken game: the stability, legitimacy and credibility of Taiwan's fledgling democracy.