Written by Ben Goren.

January 16th 2016 turned out to be a very good day for Asia’s most robust, and well-functioning, democracy.  Taiwan went peacefully and orderly to the polls (albeit with a significantly lower turnout) and brought about a number of political firsts in the sixth direct Presidential and ninth Legislative Yuan elections. Tsai Ing-wen, Chairwoman of the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, was elected as the first female Asian President who was not the daughter or relative of a previous President or Prime Minister. That a woman got elected to the highest political office was a landmark, but not really all that surprising in a polity which features a number of high profile female politicians. The Mayor of Kaohsiung for example, Chen Chu, also from Tsai’s party, is arguably the nation’s most successful and popular elected female official. Tsai’s original KMT opponent, Hung Hsiu-chu, is also a woman who has served at the highest level of lawmaking as the Deputy Speaker.

Given Tsai’s capable and inspirational rejuvenation of her party after its defeat in 2012 and her unwavering and solid leadership during the election campaign, it would have been a shock if she hadn’t have won. Perhaps then the greatest impact of Tsai’s win will not be the fact that a woman became President but the huge symbolism her victory will have for the next generation of young Taiwanese women. Representation matters and Tsai’s win serves as a beacon telling women that there are no gendered glass ceilings in Taiwanese politics. The election of the greatest number of women ever to the Legislative Yuan only serves to reinforce this new, more balanced, reality.

Tsai’s victory was not alone in being a first for the country’s political zeitgeist. Many records were set: the first time a naturalised Asian immigrant citizen was elected as a Legislator, the first time a non pan-blue candidate won an Aboriginal seat, the first symphonic black metal singer legislator, the youngest Legislative Yuan on average to date, the first time the DPP gained an absolute majority of seats and, consequentially, the first time the KMT had ever not won a working majority. A new political force – the New Power Party – born out of the rising political awareness and participation of youth, many of whom were involved in the Wild Strawberry & 318 Occupation protests, burst spectacularly onto the scene, winning five seats. Even the marginal Social Democratic Party, in it’s alliance with the Green Party, won 2.5% of the vote, ensuring that they will not have to field ten district candidates at the next Legislative elections in order to submit candidates for party list votes.

In contrast to previous elections, China, and its multi-faceted attempts to destabilise cross-strait relations in order to neutralise Taiwan’s unambiguous democratic sovereignty, wasn’t much of an election issue. Instead, the economy, along with welfare, trade, and the environment, were centre stage. Older smaller parties formed around the pro-Taiwan/pro-China cleavage fared less well in the vote – both the Taiwan Solidarity Union and the New Party failed to win a single seat. Furthermore, the internet again played another major role in the election campaign allowing citizens to rapidly critique and comment on the candidates and their policies, highlighting where they had contradicted themselves or acted in a manner unbecoming of someone seeking office.  In this respect then Taiwan’s Digital Democracy was another winner, keeping the campaign honest, sane, and interesting.

Yet, despite Taiwan demonstrating once again how a fair and free election can be held, providing lessons for older, more institutionally unhealthy, and disenfranchising, democracies like the US, there remains one aspect of Taiwan’s political institutional make up that is decidedly undemocratic, a flaw that was immediately exposed within hours of the vote count having been completed. On Sunday, Taiwan’s Premier Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) announced that he was resigning with immediate effect and would lead his cabinet in a mass resignation. The next day a small farce played out as President Ma visited Mao’s residence to convince Mao to stay on, only for his wife to turn him away at the door.

Refusing to reconsider and having gone into self-imposed radio silence, the Vice-Premier Simon Chang (張善政) was left with no choice but to take over duties and lead a cabinet unsure of whether they should resign or remain in office during the five month interregnum before Tsai is inaugurated on May 20th. It is at that time that Tsai has the constitutional authority to name a Premier who will form a new Government. Accordingly Tsai has refused to be drawn into or made party to a crisis not of her making, or her responsibility.  Mao’s actions have however highlighted one of the major flaws in Taiwan’s semi-Presidential system. This system was born of negotiations and constitutional revisions that occurred during democratic transition between 1990 and 2005. Rightly fearful of an overly powerful President, greater power was invested in the Legislative Yuan, but the question of the Premier’s role and powers got caught in between.

The President selects the Premier and formally appoints members of the Cabinet on the recommendation of the Premier. The Premier presents policies and reports to the Legislative Yuan and responds in interpolation sessions. The Premier can effectively be forced from office if one third of legislators initiate a vote of no confidence and pass it with a simple majority, at which point the entire cabinet, as convention, usually resigns along with the Premier. The Premier may also request that the President dissolve the Legislative Yuan. If the motion fails, another no-confidence vote against the same Premier cannot be initiated for one year. Finally, the Constitution forbids a Cabinet and a head of state from different parties.

The Premier has no other formal accountability to the Legislative Yuan and usually stays in office until they have become a political liability to the President. They have little formal power except as a figurehead and director of the Government, but they are usually the first the public expects to take responsibility when the President’s policies are unpopular. With no power comes great responsibility – it is generally a thankless job usually staffed by aspiring academics who fancy their hand at politics before scuttling back, tail between legs, to the comfort of academic tenure.

The life-span of Premiers in Taiwan has reflected their disposable nature – since the 1990s they have lasted on average about two years each. The Premier is not elected, they are tapped for the job and at the end they are often pushed before they can jump. Mao is unusual in that he bolted from the position with a shocking swiftness. In turn he has created the absurd situation where President Ma may have to choose a new Premier and form an entirely new cabinet for only five months – an exercise in futility. Even if the Vice-Premier takes over in the interim, if Ministers resign they will need to be replaced and who will want to take a job for a few months?  Of course the President can refuse a Premier or Minister’s resignation, and he has made a curiously public effort to reverse Mao’s decision, but if he doesn’t turn up for work Ma has to make some alternative arrangements.

One solution to preventing this kind of constitutionally derived impasse from happening again is also possibly one that could deepen and enhance Taiwanese democracy, in the one place it is still lacking. It is time that Taiwanese elected their Premier. It would require a constitutional revision – not an easy task even for a Government with a Legislative majority – and it would mean clarifying the relationship between the Presidency, Legislature, and Executive Yuan, but in principle it is workable.

The Premier could be elected every two years in a popular vote held in tandem with alternating General, and Municipal and County, elections. There should be no limit on the number of terms a Premier can serve in order to allow voters to re-elect someone who they feel has been doing a good job. If the public are not satisfied with their performance the two year terms serve as a way for them to regularly hold the Premier and the Government to account. The convention that the entire cabinet must resign when the Premier is replaced should also be scrapped – allowing new Premiers to retain those Ministers who have exercised their duties competently and have retained the public’s approval and trust. Premiers would have to attend mandatory Premier’s Question Times, along the lines of the British model of Prime Minister’s Questions, but they should be quarterly rather than weekly. The Legislative Yuan would lose the ability to vote out the Premier but it could register symbolic votes of no-confidence – the right to eject an under-performing Premier from office now being reserved solely to the electorate in a popular vote.

The right to run as Premier could be subject to certain restrictions set down by the Central Election Committee – for example they would have to be over 30 years of age and have had to have served as an official (elected or otherwise) leading a Government at the City or County level upwards. This would reward career civil servants with experience and those who have dedicated themselves to public service, in turn hopefully ensuring a Premier with a track record in heading a governing body with responsibility for public services and welfare. The Premier would not have to be a member of any political party but it would likely aid their campaign (financially and in terms of visibility) if they were. They would not have to come from the party which had won the Presidency, or the party with a majority of seats in the Legislature – that choice again reserved to the public. These are just a few initial rough ideas which would have to be ironed out after considerable negotiation. It should go without saying that such negotiations would have to be conducted in good faith and with enhancing Taiwanese democracy, rather than party advantage, as the shared objective.

These changes would represent a huge step towards democratising the last bastion of patronage and clientelism in Taiwanese politics at the national level. They would allow for a popular Premier with a democratic mandate to lead the very institution that formulates and executes public policy, creating a direct link between the voter and their government. In turn, this could neutralise perennial grumbles amongst the public about the government being out of touch with public opinion and being unaccountable.

There are many areas where Taiwan’s legislative and governmental system needs reform, something that has been recognised by all parties even if they have had different interests and objectives in promoting reforms. If the electoral system is to be changed to produce more proportional results, and if a Tsai Presidency can lead legislators and the public to effect reform at some point in the next four or eight years, it would be a wasted opportunity not to visit the issue of the Premier at the same time. Taiwanese democracy is an example for other countries to emulate and study, not just in Asia but around the world. It is not however without its limitations and institutional weaknesses and the position and function of the Premier is perhaps one of its most glaring ones.

A democracy is not a policy or an institution but a process, and one where public participation and the accountability that it generates serves to strengthen it. Democracy is vulnerable to challenges from authoritarians if it is not constantly nurtured and protected, or if it remains monolithic as all else around it changes. Taiwan’s democratisation came in part because of the catalyst of young students protesting at the life terms of unelected legislators who had fled China with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China. In this election once again we have seen youth act as the vanguard, demanding and voting into office a more representative and progressive set of politicians, many of whom place a premium on ensuring a more inclusive and tolerant exercise of politics. Making the Premier an office won through election is one of the next steps to continuing the story of Taiwan’s remarkable democratisation.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan.