There are reasons to be heartened by the student-led occupation of the legislature. One of the signature features of Taiwan's democratic transition was the positive role played by civil society organizations. Taiwan's diverse, vibrant, and politically active civil groups have been important in broadening political participation in government and serving as watchdogs for administrative initiatives. So it is encouraging to see a resurgence of activism, especially among younger generations who have been increasingly apathetic over the last decade.
The Ma Administration's Wrong-footed Response
Yet, as Dafydd Fell notes in this editorial, the Ma administration has been really bad at responding to concerns raised by these groups. The KMT, especially the big-business-friendly and technocratic elite favored by President Ma in the Executive Yuan, retains a strong inclination toward top-down policy-making that, to put it charitably, borders on paternalism. The Ma administration has a consistent pattern of disregard for democratic procedures designed to allow civil society organizations to raise questions about government policies, and statements by executive officials about popular protests have often been remarkably tone-deaf.
The administration's response so far to the occupation of the legislature follows this same pattern, and it has reinforced the already strong public impression that President Ma is politically inept. Ma did not publicly acknowledge the occupation of the legislature, but did attend meetings of the KMT Central Standing Committee and the Cabinet, where he reportedly praised the KMT legislative caucus and stated the administration's determination to win passage of the agreement by June. In the absence of any public statement by President Ma, members of his government started sounding off on the protestors, including the head of the Control Yuan, Wang Chien-hsien (王建煊), who called the students "ignorant" and "used by politicians," and said they needed to be forgiven, "for they know not what they do." On Thursday, the Premier of the Executive Yuan, Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), asserted that the students were poorly informed and being misled and used by the DPP, and the KMT caucus whip Lin Hung-chih argued the students were "trampling on the dignity of the legislature and the people of Taiwan."
By contrast, the response from Speaker Wang was much more measured, and, critically, ruled out for now the use of police to remove protestors by force. Given Wang's key position in the legislature, and his ability to mediate between the two main political camps, it appears that President Ma will once again be in the awkward position of depending on Wang get the agreement approved. Thus, the student protestors have at minimum succeeded in strengthening the hand of the legislature vis-a-vis the executive branch. I have mixed feelings about that outcome, but in comparative perspective it's not obviously a bad thing for democracy to have an assertive legislature consistently able to stand up to a presidential executive.
Troubling Democratic Implications: Not Presidential Overreach, but Governmental Paralysis
That said, some of the more outraged reactions to the KMT’s "undemocratic" attempts to get this agreement approved seem a bit hyperbolic to me. It's worth noting a couple things about this legislative outcome that are a bit odd, and worrying from the perspective of effective governance.
First, the KMT controls a majority of the seats in the Legislative Yuan. Moreover, approval for the agreement is the top legislative priority of the Ma administration right now. And President Ma also doubles as the chairman of the KMT, from which he can threaten to expel any KMT legislators who vote against the pact. And yet the agreement is still tied up in the legislative process, and has been since June.
To me, this episode demonstrates an under-appreciated fact about Taiwan's legislature--that minority parties are quite powerful. Think about this: on a bill that's the top priority of the ruling party's chairman, and with complete control over the executive branch and a comfortable majority in the Legislative Yuan, the KMT cannot get what it wants without some cooperation from the opposition! Whether or not you think that is a good thing in this particular case, it is troubling in a broader, systematic perspective. Many observers thought Ma Ying-jeou's victory in 2008 would usher in a new period of more effective executive-legislative cooperation; that hasn't happened anywhere near as frequently as predicted.
Viewed in this light, the attempt by Chang Ching-chung to bring the bill to the floor for the second reading looks more like normal maneuvering via arcane parliamentary procedure than an unprecedented "illegal action". This kind of thing is common in democratic parliaments around the world; so are roll-call votes that require party members to support the party line. What's more worrying from an institutional perspective is that legislative procedures have once again broken down over a contentious issue, and that there's ambiguity about something as basic as who should be able to chair the committee reviewing the most important piece of business this legislature will face.
Finally, the pact is the result of a bilateral negotiation, and the method of its review and potential approval has implications well beyond trade issues or cross-Strait relations. Amending it would require negotiations to be reopened, which is effectively the same as killing the deal. It is for this reason American presidents have to get Fast Track Authority from the US Senate in order to conclude free trade agreements--Fast Track ensures that any deal reached in negotiations will not be filibustered and cannot be amended, only be put to an up-or-down vote. Even if one thinks most trade agreements are terrible for Taiwan, the precedent set by the legislature's insistence on line-by-line review of agreements is really problematic: no country’s negotiators will believe that Taiwan is able to commit to deals that it signs. Taiwan already has huge disadvantages in its international relations--if it wants to be taken seriously as a good-faith ally or counterpart, it needs to be able to promise that its negotiators can deliver an up-or-down vote on any agreements they strike, as President Ma has tried to argue, without much success. The continued insistence by legislators that trade agreements be subject to renegotiation after they are signed is not in Taiwan's long-term interest.