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Taiwan's powerful whips

The whip in Taiwan is head of party legislative caucus, plays powerful role

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Taiwan's powerful whips

(CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — On Feb. 1 the newly elected legislature convened and elected a new speaker, formally known as the President of the Legislative Yuan, and deputy speaker.

Each party also selected a caucus convener (總召集人, often abbreviated to 總召), which is commonly referred to as a party whip in both English and Chinese (黨鞭), as well as party secretaries and deputies.

The speaker is expected to be impartial and independent, but the party whips represent the interests of their parties and need to be both sharp-elbowed as well as tough in cross-party negotiations. Party secretaries are also known as the “little whip” (小黨鞭) of the party.

The "King of Hualien"

The Kuomintang (KMT), which holds 52 seats and caucuses with two independents in the 113-seat legislature, has chosen Fu Kun-chi (傅崐萁) as their whip. Fu is a colorful, old-school KMT patronage faction politician who heads the eponymous Fu Faction and is widely known as the “King of Hualien.”

Fu has twice been sent to jail for stock manipulation and insider trading. He started as a People’s First Party (PFP) lawmaker, joined the KMT, was booted out over his legal woes, but later was re-admitted to the party.

One of the more famous incidents was when Fu was Hualien County Commissioner he divorced his wife, and then appointed her deputy commissioner two days later. This was found fraudulent in the courts and was given a suspended sentence and forced to pay a hefty fine. His wife is now the current Hualien County Commissioner, while Fu holds the legislative seat that he wrested from now Vice-president-elect Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴).

He has promised to “bring battle axes and missiles” to the legislature to battle the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and to push for seven reforms, some of which the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) has promoted as well. These include requiring a vote to approve any personnel hired by the speaker and deputy speaker, normalizing the president giving a report to the legislature—presumably annually like a "State of the Union" address but possibly including interpellation, he does not specify—and strengthening the capabilities of legislative committees.

He also wants to formalize rules and penalties for the speaker and deputy speaker for violating neutrality, require all expenses occurred by the legislature to be published publicly at set periods, establish a mechanism for the legislature to hold hearings and conduct investigations, and establish rules for "contempt of the legislature" and penalties for lying to the legislature, presumably along the lines of the American contempt of Congress and penalties for lying to Congress.

Those last two could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it would allow the legislature more oversight power, including over the executive branch, but on the other hand, it would almost certainly be used for partisan political games and turn into a political circus.

The "eternal convener" and Sunflower alum

The DPP’s whip is Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘), who is the longest-serving legislator, having served continuously since 1993, though Speaker Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) was also elected to the same session he only lasted until 2002, and Mirror Media has published pictures of both men from the time. Ker is referred to as the "eternal convener" (萬年總召, literally "10 thousand year convener") and has served as the party whip since the legislature’s fifth session, which began in 2001.

Ker has a reputation for being tough and a consummate backroom wheeler and dealer, which makes even some pan-greens a bit queasy. The 72-year-old Hsinchu native was one of the founders of the DPP in 1986. He is the head of a sub-faction of the DPP’s Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) faction.

The TPP whip is Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) who is best known for being one of the public faces of the Sunflower Movement in 2014 and being a co-founder and later chair of the New Power Party (NPP). He has worked to cultivate an image of an uncompromising idealist fighting for the truth.

He is also well known for arrogance and having an abrasive personality, and many left the NPP during his tenure as chair as a result. He has admitted he lacks people skills and has trouble being “buddy, buddy” with people, which he said in English, which is a habit that rubs some people the wrong way as arrogant, so he inadvertently made his own point.

While in the NPP, he was a lawmaker representing a district in New Taipei but faced a recall vote over his support of marriage equality. Sixty-nine percent of his constituents voted to oust him, while only 31% voted in his favor, but the recall failed due to insufficient turnout and he kept his job, but did not run for re-election.

Huang’s move from the NPP to the TPP is clearly about ambition as the TPP is an ascending party. He is a big champion of legal reforms and openly wants the job of justice minister, which TPP Chair Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) promised him he would get if he had won the presidential election.

What does the whip do?

The Collins Dictionary definition is pretty standard: “A whip is a member of a political party in a parliament or legislature who is responsible for making sure that party members are present to vote on important issues and that they vote in the appropriate way.”

Unlike in, for example, the American system where there is a majority and minority party leader, in Taiwan the whip is the head of the party caucus, assisted by the party secretary and their deputies. Also unlike the American system with its highly partisan speakers, Taiwan’s are expected to maintain neutrality, so are not considered a party leader, and can only vote in cases where the vote is tied.

Next Apple Media ran a very interesting piece featuring interviews with the outgoing KMT whip Tseng Ming-chung (曾銘宗) and legislative “assistants” that add more depth to the picture. Tseng described the basics of the job this way:

“The main jobs of the convener are from the committees, to examine proposed bills and to the opposition go on offense or defense, to negotiate, it all has to be coordinated by the convener and the secretary, especially if there is no consensus with the opposition on the budget or a draft bill. When (a draft) is sent to the legislature and the speaker has opened negotiations between the opposition (parties), at this time the convener attends to represent the stance of the party caucus, defend the party caucus’ opinion, to implement the party caucus’ draft to pass three readings to pass (into law).”

Tseng described how he also served as a bridge between the KMT caucus and KMT party central. He said that normally the caucus would act independently, but with big strategic policy issues it would transcend the caucus and they would consult with the KMT top brass so the party would all be on the same page, and the whip would be the one who would need to ensure that individual legislators who may have objections are heard, but that ultimately the party would come to a workable unified policy stance.

As to whether the whip’s power was large or not, Tseng said the main thing is to integrate all the caucus member’s opinions, but regarding the passing of laws, there is a definite influence. According to a legislative assistant quoted in the article, the standing joke is that the whip is like a school class monitor.

A “veteran legislative assistant” was quoted as saying that Tseng’s comments were too modest and that the whip’s authority was quite large and that for a draft to count, it needs the signatures of all the caucus heads, which provides the whip a tactical maneuver in negotiations with the other parties. However, Tseng and the assistant both described the job as coming with a lot of pressure and responsibilities that take up seven days a week.

Comments on Ker

As the outgoing whip, Tseng was asked his opinion on the "eternal convener" Ker Chien-ming. He said he was not bad and highly experienced at the job, and that because of the DPP’s “structural problems” no one has challenged him. He did not specify if these structural problems were the way the DPP apportions positions of power to different factions in a formulaic way or some other structural problem.

The "veteran" assistant described how Ker had over the long term been immersed in everything in the legislature, and knew many details that only “government advisors” would know. He said Ker was extremely skilled at using these to steer negotiations the way he wanted it to go, and that “many of our committee members had been fooled” by him, and that was his power.

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.