By Edward Ngai
Kharis Templeman, program manager for the Taiwan Democracy Project at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), studies democratization, dominant-party electoral regimes and Pacific Asia. As a Taiwan scholar, he has keenly followed the protest movement that occupied the Legislative Yuan on March 18, paralyzing the government.
The student-driven protest, dubbed the “Sunflower Movement,” opposes a trade deal with China that could significantly open up both economies to cross-Strait investment. Yesterday, student leaders claiming victory decided to end the protest on Thursday.
The Daily sat down with Templeman to discuss the situation, its strategic implications and what these events mean for the state of democracy worldwide.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): The protesters inside the Legislative Yuan and riot police attempting to keep order outside make for a very surreal scene, especially in highly-cosmopolitan Taipei. Can you explain what sparked this conflict?
Kharis Templeman (KT): Put simply, there is a trade agreement between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China being reviewed by the legislature. There was a dispute about the procedure under which that trade agreement should be reviewed: one side declared that the agreement had unilaterally taken effect or that it would because the legislature had not acted on it. That caused an uproar from a lot of people, and there were a series of student protests in opposition to this agreement, and then some students rushed into the legislature and started a sit-in.
TSD: Students, claiming victory, say that they have made significant progress towards their political goals and that “the world has heard the news.” Have they really “won?”
KT: I think it’s too early to tell. As I understand it, they are leaving the legislature because the speaker of the legislature made a public statement supporting their position, their core demand that the cross-Strait services trade agreement not be reviewed until there’s a mechanism set up [with one provision that] the legislature actually has a vote on whether the agreement takes effect.
But the Ma administration hasn’t accepted that demand and wants the current agreement exempt from any changes. A lot depends on whether the speaker [of the Legislative Yuan] keeps his word, and how many [governing party] Kuomintang (KMT) legislators stick with the president.
As for relations with media, part of the problem is that the media in Taiwan itself is highly partisan. Imagine Fox News on steroids. There’s a clear partisan slant to most coverage, and it’s hard to get good accurate information, particularly about what political actors are doing and what their motives are.
I don’t think the students had a concerted plan to do this ahead of time. Once they got into the legislature, there was the “now what” question. To their credit, they’ve quickly had a couple student leaders step up and have been fairly organized and disciplined in their message to the media.
TSD: Taipei has a reputation for being a pretty rowdy place to be a legislator. To what extent is this dramatic protest—with legislators themselves physically blocking the podium to prevent sessions from being gavelled in—an only-in-Taiwan phenomenon?
KT: You’ll see legislators in the middle of what looks like a rugby scrum, pushing and shoving each other, and the session eventually breaks down and everybody leaves, and oftentimes they meet afterwards for coffee. It’s all an act for television.
In Taiwan, there’s an institutional incentive to cause chaos on the legislative floor and in committee. That incentive comes from this peculiar institution called the Cross-Party Negotiating Committee, which brings together the leaders of all the major party caucuses, even when one party has a large majority. If there’s an agreement within that committee, every caucus leader is supposed to guarantee that their caucus will not throw a fit. If there isn’t an agreement, or if the agreement is violated, the minority party can prevent the legislative business of the day from being conducted by starting fights or boycotting. In effect, it works kind of like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate.
The other part of this story is that the speaker of the Legislative Yuan has so far not used police force to clear a path to the podium. In effect, he’s allowing this to go on.
TSD: Can you situate these recent developments within the broader context of global democracy? What might Taiwanese democracy look like in the future?
KT: The optimistic answer has to do with the larger picture of Taiwan’s political situation. It’s come a long way from 25 years ago. And sometimes, the moments at which there have been major steps forward have involved these kinds of confrontations over core parts of democratic procedure. Getting, for instance, the “ten-thousand-year Congress” to step down in 1992, required demonstrations in the streets. So, in a sense, there’s a deeper game here having do to with how Taiwan’s institutions should work. My optimistic take is that this creates at least an opportunity to scrutinize institutions again and develop some important changes that will benefit democracy over the long run.
There are also short-term negative issues. One is the precedent of students in the legislature saying “we need to get our way,” to put it uncharitably. The second is that President Ma Ying-Jeou [president of Taiwan and chairman of the KMT] has a comfortable KMT majority in the legislature and was elected, and re-elected, on a platform that included closer economic ties with the Mainland. And yet he still can’t get approval for his cross-Strait policy. So I worry that there may be damage to the legitimizing effects of winning elections and controlling majorities in Taiwan.
Contact Edward Ngai at edngai ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.