Ralph Jennings reported yesterday what many have long suspected: that the brawls in the legislature are staged so that politicians can get maximum publicity:

But the brawling and histrionics in parliament that have put Taiwan politics on the world map for the past 20 years are staged acts, legislators and political observers say.

They are planned in advance to generate media attention and garner favor with voters who like to see their representatives fight as hard as they can on tough issues.

Lawmakers even call up allies to ask that they wear sports shoes ahead of the choreographed clashes. They have been known to meet up afterwards for drinks.

“It’s really a media event, staged for media coverage,” said Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator Joanna Lei. “They have a strategy session, like a war plan.”

The latest brawl erupted on May 8 when at least 40 lawmakers blocked the speaker from his podium to head off a vote on reconfiguring the Central Election Commission.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when minority parties had no procedural way to change governing bodies controlled then by the KMT, regular fights exposed inefficiency, crookedness and authoritarianism, said Shelley Rigger, an East Asian politics expert at Davidson College in the United States.

Today, despite full democracy, the fight strategy remains.

“It’s true that politicians use (brawls) to excite their core supporters at home, but it’s unclear how effective that is,” Rigger said. “We do know, though, that it hurts the legitimacy of the democratic system as a whole. Mostly it’s a delaying tactic.”

Actually, democracy made it worse. The previous complicated system of legislative elections encouraged politicians to engage in publicity stunts since only a few votes might get them into the legislature. The recent slashing of legislative seats to 113 winner-take-all seats means that over time this behavior might be reduced. Although there are still those at-large seats that both parties must appoint.