For five consecutive sessions this month, Taiwan’s legislature received world attention, not for any laws it passed, but because of the violent brawls that erupted in the legislative chambers. Such scuffles, which are not infrequent, have shaken parliament because of weak rules and tacit agreements to avoid punishing offenders.
Over the past two years, aggressive actions such as shoving, chair tossing and grabbing fellow lawmakers in headlocks have not gone to the parliament’s Discipline Committee, which can suspend instigators from future appearances, the committee’s executive secretary said Thursday. Legislative speakers seldom use their power to call police to stop assaults, scholars in Taipei have noted.
“A dogfight between the members of the house in Taiwan is legal,” said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “They never impose any physical or lawful actions and try to regulate the behavior of the legislators, even (if they) hurt someone very badly.”
Reputation for brawls
Taiwan has built a reputation among world television audiences since the 1980s for legislative brawls that often start with opposition party members trying to block the majority party from reaching a podium. The blockade can stall votes on contentious issues.
As the majority party pushes back, sometimes scores of lawmakers punch, grab, yank neckties and throw objects. Three people were hospitalized after a brawl in December. One MP pulled out a stun gun in 2006.
Experts say fighting persists in Taiwan partly because political parties are unwilling to share power or accept they lack power, mirroring trends in some newly democratized Eastern European countries.
Blocs of voters in Taiwan also expect their parliamentarians to stand strong on particularly sensitive issues such as Taiwan’s relations with its old rival China. Some fights are staged for television cameras, individual legislators have said over the years.
Taiwan’s legislature in central Taipei lacks a sergeant at arms who controls security and can escort people out of the meeting chambers. In Britain, parliament’s sergeant at arms carries a sword.
The past two Taiwanese legislative speakers have been “kind of weak” and lack “political wisdom” to settle disputes peacefully, Liu said, giving way to physical fights. When opposition Nationalist Party MPs shoved people and mobbed the podium to block the chairman of parliament’s finance committee Monday, the chairman called a recess.
Over the past two years, neither the speaker nor parliament as a whole has honored periodic requests by individual lawmakers or party caucuses to send cases of violence to the in-house Discipline Committee, its executive secretary said.
The caucus of the majority Democratic Progressive Party had asked, for example, that a Nationalist Party legislator be sent to that committee after three people were hospitalized following a brawl in December, according to local media reports.
MPs hope to avoid dividing parliament further by punishing one of their members, said Raymond Wu, managing director of the Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. That level of punishment could raise the heat in future sessions, reducing odds of the parties working together.
“I think even though the rules have stipulated that the chairperson could possibly use the police force to remove the members from violent behaviors and other disruptive behaviors, but I think (lack of force) is primarily for the sake of inter-party harmony, because if you resort to the use of police force, this could create very divisive consequences,” Wu said.
Little talking, more fighting
Relatively little negotiation between parties sometimes leads to physical fights, because MPs believe they have no recourse to satisfy voters.
Over five sessions that started July 13, legislators hurled chairs and water balloons, sometimes screaming as they fought. The Nationalist Party had challenged the budget for funding phase one of the government’s plan for new infrastructure. The budget item received initial approval Wednesday, as more water balloons sailed through the air.
“We will do our best to explain to the public why we’re blocking this meeting,” opposition legislator Lin Wei-chou said Monday after members of his party shoved rival lawmakers to stop the finance committee chairman from reaching the podium. The chairman’s job should rotate among parties, he said, but the majority camp wasn’t letting that happen.
“The process is illegal and also this budget is too huge, so we would need to borrow money,” he said. “The public is actually pretty worried. So in one aspect we’re reflecting people’s voices. We will do our utmost to explain to people why we’re so intensely blocking this meeting.”