The building of a sound working relationship between the president and vice president in presidential systems never seems to be an easy task. Even in a country with a long electoral tradition such as the United States, vice presidents are often treated as outsiders or "third wheels" by the inner circle of presidential staffers and advisers.
Taiwan is no exception to this dilemma, as illustrated by the record of interaction between President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu of the Democratic Progressive Party over the past five and a half years.
The recent quarrel over whether the president would endorse Lu's assumption of the post of DPP acting chairperson not only exposed an inherent tension in the administration but also poses major uncertainties for the Office of the President.
After accepting the surprise commission by the DPP Central Standing Committee December 7, Lu tried to secure Chen's endorsement and, failing to receive a clear affirmation, suddenly announced her resignation after only five days in office.
In reaction to President Chen's subsequent statement in a news release that he was "tired by outside speculation that he intends to intervene in the by-election for the DPP chairperson," Lu issued a thinly-veiled barb Wednesday morning to the effect that national leaders should not be "short-sighted and concerned only with interests of power."
Shortly afterward, Lu accepted the suggestion of supporters on the DPP central standing committee to remain interim chair until the party holds a direct by-election for the chairpersonship by members January 15.
Lu denied that her remark was aimed at the president, but the apparent direct challenge to Chen's leadership displayed publically her ambition for greater political power and influence. Not a few pundits believe Lu already has her eyes on the March 2008 presidential election.
The recent crossfire is only a continuation of their long-term differences, but unfortunately dragged in an "innocent bystander" in the form of the DPP.
The decision by Lu to retract her resignation and her wise decision not to use her post as acting chairwoman as a platform to run for the DPP chair will help reduce the collateral damage on the party. Although not banned by the party's charter, such an action would have been unseemly.
Instead, we believe that Lu can best rebuild her own political credibility by using her prestige and experience in a modest manner to ensure that the election is smoothly held in a fair, open and equal manner so that the party's members can freely choose their next chairperson and the direction for the DPP's future reform.
Nevertheless, a significant problem remains over the festering issue of how Taiwan's president can build a healthy working relationship with his or her vice president. We urge both Chen and Lu to spare some consideration for how they can redefine their relationship in a more constitutional way and establish a model for future national leaders.
A fragile or rocky relationship between the president and the vice president is structurally and institutionally detrimental to Taiwan's democratic evolution. In one sense, the vice president is potentially the most important member of the administration, since her or she may have to replace the president on a moment's notice.
Given the fact that her predecessors under the decades of Kuomintang rule were usually described as "the men with no voices" and seen constitutionally only as "replacements" for the president when the latter is unable to perform his duty, it is natural for Lu, as an long-time opposition activist, political prisoner and elected politician with a forceful personality, to bristle over the limitations of the vice presidency and become upset over any hint that she was being ignored or neglected.
Nevertheless, just because Lu is entitled by her position to speak more in public than other officials does not mean that she should bypass internal channels of communication and appeal directly to the public if she feels dissatisfaction with the words and deeds of the president.
Lu has attributed much of the responsibility for "miscommunication" or "misunderstanding" with the president to Chen's closest staff, whom she blames for using the media to sabotage her partnership with the president.
Far from blameless
It would seem that both sides are far from blameless. While the presidential staff should refrain from indirectly criticizing the vice president or other senior officials through the media, Lu also should re-examine herself for improper comments made in the wake of the DPP's defeat in the "three-in-one" local elections December 3.
Not only did Lu pour cold water on the DPP before the election by predicting a landslide KMT victory, but she also named several DPP political heavyweights to be held responsible for the dismal electoin results, most of whom just happened to be widely considered as Lu's potential rivals for the DPP nomination in the next presidential poll.
Moreover, on December 10, Lu made a controversial comparison of the scandal over the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit System as a "second Formosa Incident," referring to the watershed event of December 10, 1979, in the Taiwan democratic movement.
Lu's high-profile statements of intention to introduce internal reforms in the DPP also invited critiques that she was overstepping her mandate as interim chairperson. Lu should realize that she has already been a "herstory" maker in her career as a pioneer of Taiwan's feminist movement, a democratic movement activist and politician and, last but not least, her re-election with Chen in March 2004.
Moreover, Lu is already the most active vice president in Taiwan's history. Chen has assigned Lu to head two critical advisory boards on science and technology and human rights and has also invited Lu to join several senior decision-making mechanisms.
What Chen and Lu should bear in mind is how to further construct a positive relationship between the president and vice president.
In the remainder of their terms, Chen should not distance himself from Lu, but rather give her more opportunities to participate in the decision-making process, but Lu must also learn that she can make her best contribution and earn the most political credit by acting as a "helping hand" instead of a "stumbling block" to Chen and the DPP administration.