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Taiwan People's Party in catbird seat in speaker race

Holding balance of power in legislature gives TPP leverage

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Kuomintang politician Han Kuo-yu hugs it out with Taiwan People's Party politician Huang Kuo-chang.

Kuomintang politician Han Kuo-yu hugs it out with Taiwan People's Party politician Huang Kuo-chang. (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — On Feb. 1 the newly elected legislature will convene and vote on who will be the speaker, whose official title is confusingly president of the Legislative Yuan, as well as the deputy speaker.

This is the most exciting and competitive speaker race since at least 1999, when the Kuomintang (KMT) saw a fierce internal battle that saw native Taiwanese speaker and factional politician Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) win out and begin his 17-year reign.

Some have billed this in the local media as the first time that no party has won a majority in the legislature, but that is not true, both 2001 and 2004 led to minority party elected speakers. That is easy to forget as at the time the KMT, People’s First Party (PFP), and New Party (NP) voted as a bloc, ensuring Wang would be re-elected both times.

In the newly-elected legislature, the KMT has 52 seats and two independents who caucus with the party, for a total of 54. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has 51 seats, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) has eight, resulting in no party reaching a majority of 57.

If the vote for speaker and deputy speaker fails to reach a majority, a second vote will be held and the candidates with the largest plurality will win. To avoid having a weak speaker both the KMT and DPP have sent their candidates to meet with the TPP caucus to win over the smaller party.

This puts the TPP in the catbird seat, and they are working to make the most of it. The TPP has already announced it will be voting as a bloc, which maximizes its influence and will kick out members if they do not toe the party line.

There are three things they need to determine in making their decision: What they want in exchange for support, what are the advantages and disadvantages of backing the DPP or KMT candidates, and whether they should form a weak or strong alliance with that party. What the TPP decides will say a lot about the party and could have a strong impact on their future.

The TPP has already laid out its cards on the minimum bar to win their support, which is to support four reforms to the legislature laid out by TPP lawmaker Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌). They are to amend the laws to allow the legislature to hold investigative hearings, the right of approval of government appointees, a requirement that lawmakers must recuse themselves from voting on bills that could have a direct impact on their own family’s businesses, and require the speaker to transparently reveal all spending done by the speaker’s office.

The KMT’s candidate for speaker, former 2020 presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), and deputy speaker candidate and former KMT Chair Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) have indicated their support for the reforms. The DPP incumbent You Si-Kun (游錫堃) has expressed his support, but noted that he can not speak for his party because of the requirement to maintain neutrality as speaker.

Strong or weak alliance?

If the TPP chooses a weak alliance, they would simply back another party’s candidates in exchange for those concessions, but would retain independence as a party and could align with either the KMT or DPP depending on the issue. In this case, they would be forcing both parties to have to court them every time they wanted to get anything passed. It would also be more on brand being “above pan-blue and pan-green ideology.”

If they form a strong alliance and vote as a bloc with a partner party, they will get a seat at the decision-making table. If they partner with the KMT, which has been discussed, they would use this position to oversee the government, which would also be on brand for the party.

If they were to partner with the DPP, however, they would be working with the ruling party, allowing a seat at the table with the party that also would be executing any laws being passed in the legislature.

Additionally, there is a possibility of the TPP getting a Cabinet seat in the incoming Lai Ching-de (賴清德) administration, something Lai has not ruled out.

That would give them more influence on the government and by extension more power. This could also be pitched as being on brand in the name of being pragmatic and getting things done.

They could probably get more, but the big risk with a strong alliance is that the TPP would then be strongly associated with that party, blurring their identity and potentially being tarnished with whatever failings that party has or will have in the future. This was one of the reasons for the downfall of the People’s First Party.

Advantages and disadvantages

The TPP bills itself as the “practical,” “scientific” and “rational” party, and those standards would just concentrate on what each of the candidates brings to the table in terms of qualifications. They will not only consider that of course, but if they were to, the obvious choice would be You Si-kun.

You, a former premier, has by most accounts done a good job as speaker and is well respected, with even KMT lawmakers saying good things about him. He has a calm and diplomatic personality well suited to the position.

Han was a legislator for eight years, serving from 1993 to 2002, and is primarily remembered for violently attacking and hospitalizing then-fellow lawmaker and future president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and for a failed recall attempt against him.

The legislature was a very different body at the time as the lawmakers then came from multi-member districts and only served for three years, whereas now they come from single-member districts and serve for four years. It was a rowdier era with a lot more parties represented.

Han is a charismatic and affable man, but not known for being diplomatic and is prone to speaking off the cuff. By many accounts, his performance as Kaohsiung mayor during interpellation by the city council left much to be desired.

However, Han and TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who is even less diplomatic and more prone to speaking off the cuff, get along quite well. You Si-kun has said he and Ko could be “counted as” friends as well, but I do not recall ever seeing anything to suggest that is either true or untrue, whereas Ko and Han have very publicly enjoyed each other’s company.

Meanwhile, Huang Kuo-chang, who as a member of the TPP caucus presumably has a seat at the decision-making table, has been very publicly attacking DPP caucus convener Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) and deputy speaker Tsai Chi-chang (蔡其昌), going so far as to say he would never vote for Tsai, though he later backed down and said he would vote with his caucus.

Curiously, Ko Wen-je told the press he thinks Ker “is not very hopeful” You Si-kun will win. Does he know something we do not, or is he projecting something on Ker? One thing that happened that one would have never expected is seeing Huang Kuo-chang, who stood strong during the Sunflower Movement to stop the KMT from enacting a services pact with China, physically embracing Han Kuo-yu of the KMT, who is widely known for his pro-China stance. Times sure have changed.

So which way will TPP jump?

This is a genuine puzzler. Tying up with the DPP would probably provide more benefits to the TPP if they can keep a weak alliance but get a Cabinet position. Strategically that seems the best move.

But by past and present behavior over the last year, Ko and the TPP seem more inclined toward the KMT. The TPP has left the door open to both sides and will not make clear their decision until Feb. 1.

I have no idea which way the TPP will go on this. Perhaps one fortune teller who insists it will be You Si-kun knows something I do not.

It will be very interesting to see who they pick, the nature of the alliance and their explanation for their choices.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on X (prev. Twitter): @donovan_smith.