No-holds-barred pol­i­tics

Brawl­ing in Tai­wan’s par­lia­ment is a way of life. But vot­ers may be los­ing their taste for it.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Ralph Jen­nings Jen­nings is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

TAIPEI, Tai­wan — Swivel chairs and wa­ter bal­loons flew through the air. One woman bat­ted an­other across the face as their team­mates strug­gled to sep­a­rate them. The crowd waved plac­ards as cash tossed from out­side the ring rained down on the fighters. Whis­tles screeched but did lit­tle to quell the melee.

Alex Fei threw Lee Chunyi to the floor, jumped on his chest and held him in a head­lock. Wu Ping-jui used a chair to de­flect a bal­loon.

Lin Chuan stood glumly on the side­lines in a dark blue suit.

He wasn’t watch­ing a World Wrestling En­ter­tain­ment event. It was a ple­nary ses­sion last month in Tai­wan’s par­lia­ment.

Fei, Lee and Wu are leg­is­la­tors. And Lin is the is­land’s premier.

Shoves, punches and neck­tie pulls are a way of life in Tai­wan’s par­lia­ment. One fight in­volved a stun gun.

Like many fights, the one last month started over money — $32 bil­lion that nearly every­body agrees is needed for ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture up­grades over the next eight years. Ex­actly how to spend it is a sore spot.

With its ma­jor­ity, the rul­ing Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party largely con­trols the purse strings and pushed through a plan to spend the first $3.3 bil­lion on flood con­trol, light rail and other projects.

But mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion Na­tion­al­ist Party charged that plan was guided by pol­i­tics, with the in­vest­ments di­rected to the cities and coun­ties most loyal to the gov­ern­ment.

The fight­ing con­tin­ued for a to­tal of five days. No­body was se­ri­ously hurt, but one leg­is­la­tor com­plained of breath­ing prob­lems, said Hsiao Bi-khim, a leg­is­la­tor from the rul­ing party.

Such spec­ta­cle dates back to the 1980s and the early days of democ­racy in Tai­wan af­ter four decades of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule.

Ex­perts sug­gested that fight­ing is a symp­tom of im­ma­tu­rity in new democ­ra­cies, where ne­go­ti­at­ing and ac­cept­ing de­feat can be for­eign con­cepts. The for­mer Soviet re­publics of Ge­or­gia and Ukraine have ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar vi­o­lence.

Fights can force ne­go­ti­a­tion, as was the case with three brawls in 2013 over trade with China.

Fight­ing also en­ables law­mak­ers — par­tic­u­larly those from the mi­nor­ity — to demon­strate their passion and com­mit­ment to an is­sue when their side lacks the power to get its way.

“Par­lia­ment mem­bers would use that method to stand out on some is­sues,” said Wang Yeh-lih, a com­par­a­tive pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Na­tional Tai­wan Univer­sity. “It be­came part of the leg­is­la­ture’s cul­ture.”

Like pro­fes­sional wrestling, the rum­bles are of­ten staged, with the ag­gres­sors warn­ing their tar­gets and re­mind­ing them it’s not per­sonal. Many leg­is­la­tors plan ahead to make sure tele­vi­sion cam­eras are in place to cap­ture the ac­tion.

Brawls can also be an ef­fec­tive if crude form of fil­i­bus­ter­ing to block law­mak­ers from tak­ing the podium and thus pre­vent­ing bills from go­ing to a vote.

“You’ve got to have some way to stop it,” said Cheng Chao-yi, a re­tired Tai­wan colonel who has protested out­side par­lia­ment against pen­sion re­form.

Joanna Lei was at the podium in 2007 urg­ing fel­low law­mak­ers to au­tho­rize di­rect f lights to China — which views Tai­wan as a rogue prov­ince — when she was am­bushed by op­po­nents who had been hid­ing un­der a ta­ble.

Lei, who knew the “stam­pede” was be­ing planned but was still caught off guard, suf­fered a bro­ken fin­ger.

She jokes now that her in­jury was “for a good cause”; her side even­tu­ally won the de­bate over start­ing flights to China.

Lei, who has left the leg­is­la­ture and now runs a think tank in Tai­wan, keeps an Xray as proof that the bro­ken fin­ger wasn’t part of her own drama­ti­za­tion.

“A lot of time those women leg­is­la­tors will fake their faint­ing, so you have to be care­ful,” she said.

And what do vot­ers make of the brawl­ing?

Some ap­pre­ci­ate it for the en­ter­tain­ment value and the po­lit­i­cal passion on dis­play.

But others are turned off by the fights and ex­pect law­mak­ers to set­tle their dis­agree­ments peace­fully through par­lia­men­tary rules, with some ex­perts sug­gest­ing that the big­gest of­fend­ers could pay a price in next year’s elec­tions.

Liu Yih-jiun, a pub­lic af­fairs pro­fes­sor at Fo Guang Univer­sity in Tai­wan, said the pub­lic ap­petite for fights is al­ready fad­ing and will even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear: “Give Tai­wan an­other 10 to 20 years.”

Hsiao of the rul­ing party said that al­though some Tai­wanese ac­cept some “con­fronta­tion” over di­vi­sive is­sues such as China pol­icy or nu­clear power, vot­ers are likely to be turned off by last month’s fight­ing over in­fra­struc­ture.

He ac­cused the op­po­si­tion of “try­ing to sab­o­tage the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts.”

“Their only con­sis­tency is sab­o­tage,” he said.

But Lin Wei-chou, the cau­cus whip of the Na­tion­al­ist Party, said the rul­ing party blocked any­body else from a turn chair­ing the fi­nance com­mit­tee, leav­ing his own party few op­tions.

“If they keep up like this, it’s hard to avoid an­other con­flict,” he said. “We’ve heard crit­i­cism from the pub­lic about our fights, but it’s hard to ex­plain th­ese laws to them.”

Pho­to­graphs by Sam Yeh AFP/Getty Images

LAW­MAK­ERS in Tai­wan bran­dish chairs in a brawl last month over how to spend $32 bil­lion needed for ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture projects. Fight­ing con­tin­ued for a to­tal of five days, though no one was se­ri­ously injured.

FIGHT­ING is of­ten staged, with leg­is­la­tors making sure TV cam­eras are in place to cap­ture the ac­tion.

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