Taiwan: Kung-fu legislature

TAIPEI, Taiwan — He looked like a crowd-surfer at a punk rock show.

Clad in a cream-colored party vest with his name stitched on the back in green and a headband around his graying hair, the pro-independence legislator bobbed in the air in front of the speaker's lectern. Shouting filled the chamber as he was pushed and pulled by a sea of clutching hands.

His fellow legislators tried to scale the speaker's platform, only to be pushed away by ruling party legislators. One pro-independence legislator tumbled ass over elbow to the floor.

Something flew through the air and struck a ruling party legislator in the face. The victim put a hand over his eye and raised his other hand like an injured soccer player asking to be taken off the field.

Welcome to Taiwan's legislature, one of the unruliest in Asia or, really, anywhere in the world. Its melees have made it onto CNN and sparked regular bouts of soul-searching here over the "loss of face" for Taiwan. But few think the chamber's likely to learn better manners anytime soon.

"The legislature is not a regular law-making platform — it's a martial arts platform," said ruling Kuomintang legislator Alex Tsai. "Especially when some legislators want to show off how much they
oppose some bills."

So it went on July 8, when the legislature convened to take up the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a controversial China-Taiwan trade deal. In a surprise move, the speaker abruptly announced that the bill would proceed directly to a second and final reading within days, skipping committee review.

That's when pro-independence legislators, from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), went bananas. They charged the speaker's lectern, attempting to block the procedure. Tsai was one of the Kuomingtang (KMT) lawmakers on "defense," swatting away climbers' arms with a mischievous, amused grin on his face.

Just minutes after the session opened, it adjourned in chaos. Two legislators went to the hospital for minor injuries.

A hive of journalists buzzed outside, swapping information. One key point in dispute: what exactly had hit the KMT legislator's face? Some said a calculator; others, a small clock.

Said one visibly excited TV reporter: "They haven't fought much recently," before scurrying away to do a stand-up report.

A KMT legislator came outside to the steps in front of the chamber to show off his battle scars to the media pack. "We regret that the DPP uses violent methods, hurting the legislature's image and Taiwan's image," one of his party-mates said.

By now, it's a ritual. Legislators from both sides admit that much of the tussling is about as "real" as U.S. professional wrestling and is mostly a show for the T.V. cameras. They prepare for battle by slipping on sneakers or other soft-soled shoes and making other wardrobe adjustments.

"I can't wear a tie — sometimes it's dangerous," said opposition DPP legislator Twu Shiing-jer, explaining that ties only give the other side something to pull on in the heat of battle.

Sometimes the fighting gets out of control though — and people do get hurt. The women fight just as much as the men, pulling each others' hair and pounding on tables.

In 2004 a food fight broke out over an arms purchase bill, with rice-and-chicken lunch boxes flying across a conference room. In 2006, a female opposition legislator snatched away a bill on closer links ith China and stuffed it in her mouth — call it "veto by chewing."

In a separate brawl, another threw her shoe at the speaker, hitting a nearby legislator instead.

Why such high emotions?

"The DPP wants to show their supporters they are heroes, fighting with the KMT," said Tsai. "They say the KMT has an alliance with China, so if they fight with the KMT, they're fighting with China. That will please supporters and get them more money and more votes."

"If there were no cameras, they wouldn't fight with us," he said.

The DPP legislator Twu didn't entirely disagree. "Taiwan's democracy is not mature yet," he said. "We're just like kids, arguing in the legislature."

He said he "worried a lot" about the effect on Taiwan's international image. But he said his party, with only 33 out of 113 seats, sometimes had to take drastic action because the majority party routinely ignored them.

"From our point of view, we never fight," said Twu. "We just try to occupy the chairman's chair, to stop illegal processes. They [the KMT] don't like to discuss — unfortunately, they don't respect the minority."

He said legislators that fight tooth-and-nail over one "hot" bill will cooperate on others, and they can get along just fine after the closing bell's rung.

Asked about China's tendency to point to Taiwan's legislative brawls as a cautionary sign of the chaos democracy can bring, Twu was dismissive.

"Everyone knows this isn't true — this is just [China] trying to cheat its people," he said. "Even an immature democracy is better than rule by just one group or man," he said, referring to the Chinese
Communist Party's autocratic rule.

Twu said his party hopes to prolong the ECFA review process as long as possible, to make sure the Taiwanese people understand the stakes. It looks more likely that the public will instead be treated to a few more days of fisticuffs.

Taiwan sociologist Chiu Hei-yuan said the main reason for legislative conflict was the imbalance between the ruling and opposition party. He said Taiwan had turned the clock back to the 1980s, when a vastly outnumbered pro-democracy opposition used violent methods to make its presence known.

"The structure of Congress has returned to the period of the end of martial law, so there's no way for the two sides to compromise," said Chiu. "The KMT says, I'll just ignore your opinions. And the DPP says, I'll just fight hard. I think both sides are irrational."

Chiu recently led a team of scholars in assembling a report on legislative and media reform. He said only tweaks to the legislative electoral system would help. "The big gap between the two parties will continue if the voting system isn't changed. There won't be any way to solve the problem for a long time," he said.

Twu, not surprisingly, agreed. "We must tell the Taiwan people, if you want more stable politics, you must increase the number of DPP legislators, to make it more even."

Outside the legislative chamber, one security guard had a jaded take on the chaos. He was surprised the session had concluded so quickly, but otherwise it was all business as usual.

Told that violence in the U.S. Congress had been rare for more than 100 years, he gave a quizzical look, then asked, "How does your Congress pass bills?"