Editorial: Protesters against reform of unfair pensions are no Sunflowers

(By Central News Agency)

Once again, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan has become the background for massive pushing and shoving, though this time, the scene did not feature lawmakers of either “blue” or “green” camp throwing cups of tea and documents at each other, but outsiders trying to prevent the legislators from going to work.

The Legislature’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee was scheduled to begin its detailed review Wednesday April 19 of the government proposal to reform the pension payment system for government employees, including teachers and military personnel.

Yet, as predicted and expected, groups of activists and radical opponents of such reform showed up to lay siege outside the Legislature, shouting at and even attacking at lawmakers and officials visiting the compound on Wednesday.

In the end, the violence and the attempts by the KMT caucus to stop the review led to an agreement to postpone it until next month, after two hearings, on April 26 and 27, discuss the reform of benefits for civil servants and for teachers respectively.

There is little optimism that once those hearings over, the opposition and especially the protesters, will all of a sudden feel less inclined to try and block the reform package.

President Tsai Ing-wen, in her response to the incidents Wednesday, was right to condemn the violence and to promise tough treatment of those responsible.

Among the protest banners noted outside the Legislative Yuan, there was a comparison drawn between the demonstrations against the reform of unfair pensions and the so-called Sunflower Movement.

However, the Sunflower Movement, which occupied the Legislative Yuan from March 18 until April 10, 2014, was a spontaneous response to a KMT legislator trying to force through a trade pact with China without the promised detailed review. It was a reaction indicating popular outrage at the betrayal of a promise.

The Tsai Administration’s reform project for unfair pensions on the contrary has been a project long in the making.

The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou stated back in 2012, at the beginning of his second term, that the country’s social benefit system would eventually be faced with bankruptcy, but due to vested interests, it failed to take any measures, leaving the problem to fester until today, five years and another administration later.

Since taking office in May last year, the Tsai government has hosted 24 public hearings and a national conference on the subject of pension reform. An estimated 2 million people watched at least some of the proceedings online, reports said.

The duration and intensity of the process shows the government has been serious about allowing as many people as possible to put forward their views on the need for and shape of the reforms.

Unlike the trade pact with China, changes to unfair pensions have been discussed for almost a year, so the recent protests cannot be described as just a spontaneous response to a government whim.

As to the level of violence, courts have found leaders and members of the Sunflower Movement not guilty of public disorder violations, such as obstruction of the police in the discharge of its duties or incitement of other civilians to commit crimes. The 2014 movement was basically a legal expression of civil disobedience, judges ruled.

The current spate of protests is mainly led by a narrow group of people defending vested interests, and who have been successful in winning opposition support as the issue has become caught in the Kuomintang race for party leader, with candidates upping the ante in an effort to win votes from sectors of society known for their support of the former ruling party.

The party even backed down from presenting its own alternative to the government proposals following internal strife between the candidates, reports said.

The KMT tries to block the reforms at its own risk, without regard for the fact that most opinion polls show 70 percent of the public supports pension reform. Changes might be painful, but with the prospect of bankruptcy for the system, there is little other choice.

Opponents might hope that their obstruction will lead to an eventual defeat of the Tsai Administration just like the Sunflower Movement was followed by the demise of the KMT, but the political environment and issues are completely different.

In contrast to the China trade pact, there has been ample room for debate and reactions on the reform of unfair pensions.

Any more delays in introducing reforms could lead to the renewed drawing of comparisons to Greece, the main victim of the 2008 Euro crisis, with nobody wanting to see Taiwan turn from an economic miracle and an “Asian Tiger” into the “Greece of the Asia Pacific.”