February 2, 2024
TAIPEI – The protests began even before the Beijing-friendly former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu was elected Taiwan’s new legislative Speaker.
Hours before the vote started on Feb 1, dozens of young Taiwanese held banners outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei and shouted: “We reject China’s choice.” Some scaled the walls surrounding the building before they were stopped by the police.
With Mr Han of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) now sworn in as Speaker, Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will face challenges in setting the island’s direction.
By law, the Speaker must remain neutral in Parliament, but he will set the agenda in the legislature, which controls spending.
Analysts say there are implications for how cross-strait dynamics and Taiwan’s parliamentary diplomacy would play out amid the island’s diplomatic isolation.
Besides the routine duty of chairing legislative proceedings, the Speaker has the important role of expanding the island’s international outreach through parliamentary cooperation – deemed necessary given the sensitivities surrounding Taipei’s political status.
“Through parliamentary diplomacy, Taiwan has been deepening ties with democratic partners (and others) that share similar values,” former Speaker You Si-kun of the ruling DPP told Nikkei Asia, in an interview days before he lost the role.
“We have broken China’s diplomatic blockade,” he added in the report published on Jan 26.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and has stepped up pressure in recent years to isolate Taipei internationally.
Despite having only 12 official diplomatic allies, Taiwan has strengthened its informal relations with like-minded democracies through parliamentary exchanges, which are seen as less official than if they were carried out by the executive branch.
“As legislative Speaker, You has had meetings in Europe, Japan and the US, and he has also welcomed legislators from other countries to Taiwan. If he had retained the position, we would see more of the same,” said Associate Professor Chen Shih-min, a political scientist from National Taiwan University.
“But it’s less clear about the direction that Han will take, especially given his Beijing-friendly stance.”
Mr Han, 66, was widely tipped to become Speaker after the smaller Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) made the surprise announcement one day before the vote that it would be fielding its own candidate for the post, instead of rallying its eight legislators to support either of the two main political parties.
Given how the KMT is the largest party in the 113-seat legislature with 52 seats to the DPP’s 51 – it was anticipated that the former mayor would beat Mr You as long as every voter cast their ballot along party lines. The final two legislative seats are held by independents ideologically aligned with the KMT.
Mr Han was confirmed in the role after he secured 54 votes in a second round of voting, which is based on a plurality. All eight members of the TPP had abstained then. No one had emerged the winner in the first round, which required an absolute majority of at least 57 votes.
A big concern among Mr Han’s critics is that his Beijing-friendly leanings would make him vulnerable to China’s pressure to do its bidding.
For one thing, that could mean fewer parliamentary exchanges with other like-minded democracies, given that these are frowned upon by China, experts said.
Mr Han has repeatedly endorsed the 1992 Consensus – a tacit agreement that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China”, with each side having its own interpretation of what that meant.
It was on this basis that former president Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT had fostered cordial relations with Beijing, but the concept has become increasingly out of step in Taiwan after Chinese President Xi Jinping equated it with “one country, two systems” in a 2019 speech.
While serving as Kaohsiung mayor in 2019, Mr Han also stirred controversy when he became Taiwan’s first administrative chief to set foot in the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, an agency tasked with carrying out the city’s “one country, two systems” framework.
Prominent historian Chou Wan-yao from National Taiwan University, who is independence-leaning, questioned Mr Han’s ability to convey mainstream Taiwanese opinion to foreign legislators.
“He might send the wrong message to the international community – that the Taiwanese people are willing to accept the same fate as Hong Kong,” she told reporters.
Others had reservations over Mr Han’s ability to carry out the role in a professional manner. While serving as Kaohsiung mayor, he was criticised for being tardy or skipping important meetings. His decision to run for president less than a year after becoming mayor earned him the nickname “runaway mayor”, leading him to be removed from the post in a humiliating recall motion.
But there are those who say that Mr Han becoming leader of the legislature would help provide checks and balances for the ruling administration when Mr Lai takes office on May 20.
Assistant Professor Ma Chun-wei, a political scientist from New Taipei’s Tamkang University, said: “As none of the political parties has a majority in the legislature, all of the parties will be forced to learn how to compromise, and that’s not a bad thing.”
On his part, Mr Han thanked Mr You for his contributions to “the democratic development of Taiwan”. Speaking to the press after becoming Speaker, he added: “I bear great responsibility on my shoulders. People are expecting a fresh start and reform at the Legislative Yuan.”