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Implications and politics behind Taiwan's new legislative speaker

TPP's surprise challenge, an umbrella with a message, and Han Kuo-yu's good start

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Implications and politics behind Taiwan's new legislative speaker

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — At the first session of the newly-elected legislature, Kuomintang (KMT) legislator-at-large and former Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) was elected speaker, or more formally President of the Legislative Yuan, after two rounds of voting that was entirely along party lines.

In the end, the 52 Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers along with the two independents that caucus with them outnumbered the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) 51 lawmakers.

The big surprise was that the day prior the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) announced they would be running Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) as their candidate for speaker, despite previously saying they would not. In the first round of voting the TPP had only seven of their eight votes counted after one lawmaker accidentally smudged the ink on the ballot.

The rules require an outright majority in the first round of voting, which no party attained. In the second round, a simple majority suffices. The TPP did not vote in the second round. Later in the day Taichung lawmaker Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) of the KMT was elected deputy speaker.

The outgoing speaker, You Si-kun (游錫堃) of the DPP resigned from his party list legislative seat after failing to be re-elected. A former premier, he might be a potential candidate for premier again.

He also formerly led a DPP faction named after himself whose members later went on to make up a big chunk of the Taiwan Normal Country Promotion Association faction (TNCPA, 正常國家促進會, usually abbreviated to 正國會), which is currently headed by former transport minister and Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), who is another potential candidate for premier. The Tsai administration very carefully allocated positions of power to people in different factions roughly on an understood formula to keep the balance of power between the factions stable and keep them from rebelling and wreaking havoc as they did in the 2000s.

Colorful character

KMT Legislator Hsieh Lung-chieh (謝龍介) arrived at the first session carrying an umbrella with a warning for President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德): “I will hunt you down.” In Chinese, that message reads more as a warning than a threat, meaning that Lai’s political decision-making will receive scrutiny. The umbrella was festooned with a fictional movie poster titled, “I Will Be Watching You All My Life (一生監督你一人).”

Hsieh said that he trusts Lai’s wisdom, but he will still watch him closely. Hsieh is a colorful character I have paid attention to since he was a Tainan city councilor under then-Mayor and current president-elect Lai.

Hsieh ran for Tainan mayor in 2022 and only lost by a few percentage points, which is quite a feat in the deep-green city, though he may also have been boosted by a series of scandals involving Tainan DPP figures that included 88 gunshots fired, alleged corruption, intimidation, and vote buying in the city council and a government official involved in alleged corruption.

Distinct and independent

The TPP’s abrupt turnabout to run a candidate at the last minute is an interesting strategic choice. In the long run, this was probably the right choice to make by keeping the party, and therefore their image, distinct and independent from the other two larger parties.

Interestingly, when asked if the TPP had contacted DPP leadership in an attempt to garner their support to elect Vivian Huang, their spokesman said it was the other way around, some in the DPP had encouraged the TPP to run Huang. Though it is unclear if it is true, it is easy to believe. There are likely quite a few people in the DPP who would prefer the TPP’s Huang to the KMT’s Han, knowing that the DPP was going to lose.

Later TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) confirmed this but said that he thought the DPP’s New Tide Faction would not vote for Huang so he turned them down. Ko had frequently attacked New Tide on the campaign trail using a play on a slogan originally targeting the KMT, “if New Tide does not fall, Taiwan will not get well,” which sounds stronger in Chinese than English (新潮流不倒,台灣不會好).

Ko has also often referred to the DPP as not having the spirit it used to have, but mostly seems to blame the New Tide faction for this. New Tide is the DPP’s most powerful faction, and until he recently announced he was leaving it, included President-elect Lai.

Hierarchical KMT

On the KMT side, they chose to put Han Kuo-yu at the top of the ticket and Johnny Chiang as his deputy provides insights into the hierarchical nature of the party. Chiang is probably better qualified than Han for the job of speaker, having served longer in the legislature and more recently, having led the KMT caucus as convener and having previously served as the KMT party chair, which is a powerful and highly respected position in the party.

Theoretically, Han having served as a losing presidential candidate, was ousted as Kaohsiung mayor in a humiliating recall, and having only served nine years as a legislator mostly in the 1990s, he should rank lower than Chiang. However, Han is Chiang’s elder in a party that traditionally prizes seniority, and Chiang won the KMT chair in a by-election, so his term was viewed as more of a caretaker than a “real” chair. That Han has a bigger and more fervent fan base to draw voters to the polls in January’s election also probably was taken into consideration.

In his new role as speaker, Han has gotten off to a good start. The speaker needs to be neutral, impartial, and most importantly diplomatic. It will be his job to oversee complex and often difficult negotiations between party caucuses and within committees to get draft bills to the floor of the legislature.

Smart, generous offer

After You Si-kun’s speech and resignation as legislator, Han gave his speech. Much of it was what would be expected, calls for unity across the parties, working for the benefit of the public, and afterward told the press he hoped to work on people’s livelihood and economic issues that he thought could be cross-party issues.

More interesting was his classy handling of You’s resignation. Han offered You his “highest gratitude” and thanked him for his “42 years of bearing witness to the sacrifices made for Taiwan’s democracy.” Even more classy was how he handled the topic of You’s impressive and highly successful use of legislative diplomacy to reach out to lawmakers in many countries.

Instead of simply praising You with flowery words, he offered You use of the speaker’s office and said he hoped that the two of them would work together to advance the legislature’s international outreach and for You to not be shy in reaching out to Han on the issue. Han deserves a lot of credit for his generosity here, but it is also smart, practical politics.

By offering You a concrete role during his term he is showing cross-party goodwill while simultaneously showing humble respect for You, a giant in Taiwan’s political transformation over the years. Those are strong, concrete signals to the DPP right out of the gate that he is serious about walking the walk on working with them, not just talking the talk.

It is also smart practically because You has the knowledge, skills, and connections to keep the legislature’s diplomacy growing, all of which Han lacks. If You takes Han up on his offer, it could help make this legislative session more successful on the international stage, which is good for everyone, including Han.

Good portent?

It is also worth noting that Han apparently thought this up on the fly after hearing of You’s resignation. It could be a sign that his diplomatic skills have been underestimated and that he may be more effective in the role than expected. He has matured since his time as lawmaker in the 1990s, when among other things he violently attacked and hospitalized then-lawmaker and future president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

During his time as speaker, You gained respect from the other party caucuses for faithfully and fairly doing his job. Being able to negotiate between the party caucuses to reach consensus to pass laws that hopefully help the nation is a difficult task.

Some laws were passed by the DPP caucus relying on their majority alone, but more often than not that was not the case. Much of that success comes down to the effectiveness of the speaker, which will be even more critical now that no party holds the majority.

It is too early to know for sure how Han will pan out, but his first day in office was a good start.

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.