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Legislators threw pig guts in Taiwan’s parliament. Here’s what you need to know about legislative brawls.

Disruptive tactics around the world get rewarded, sometimes.

- December 11, 2020

“Pig guts fly in offal fight over meat imports in Taiwan’s parliament” — The Guardian

“Pig intestines fly as Taiwan lawmakers engage in ham-fisted political attacks” — The Washington Post

It was a headline writer’s dream: On Nov. 27, legislators from Taiwan’s opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), protested a speech by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) premier by hurling pork innards inside the legislative chamber. The apparent cause of the fracas was the DPP government’s decision to lift restrictions on meat imports from the United States, where many farmers use the controversial chemical ractopamine to grow leaner pork.

The issues at stake are important, but they’re not why the incident became global news. What attracted so many reporters, editors and readers to the story was the idea that legislators would do something so repulsive — it’s hard to believe there’s political advantage in throwing pig guts at your opponents.

But these episodes — which can even involve violent confrontations and injuries — have strategic value for politicians and parties. Being willing to fling a fistful of pig intestines at your political adversary turns off middle-of-the road voters, but hardcore partisans like politicians who go all-out.

What makes legislators decide to brawl?

The pork intestine incident fits comfortably into a class of behavior known as parliamentary brawls — when legislators physically violate the rules in order to disrupt normal proceedings. Parliamentary brawls are not everyday events, but they’re not rare, either. We found one published paper attempting to document brawls globally, identifying 91 events in 32 countries between 1981 and 2011. But our research suggests this type of behavior is severely undercounted: Taiwan alone experienced 240 incidents between 1987 and 2019.

So how do people feel about these types of incidents? We fielded multiple surveys of Taiwanese adults between 2015 and 2019 and consistently found negative reactions toward brawling. For example, in a nationally representative telephone survey of 1,127 adults conducted June 4-6, 2016, by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, 58 percent of respondents agreed that the brawling in the legislature was a “serious problem,” 73 percent agreed that “forceful measures” should be used to restore order, and 63 percent judged that frequent brawling would hurt, not help, a legislator win reelection.

Die-hard supporters may favor the all-out commitment of a brawl

If most hate this behavior, why do legislators do it? It’s tempting to think of brawls as temper tantrums by immature or thuggish legislators who lose control in the heat of a political fray, but interviews with numerous brawlers have convinced us that participating in a brawl is a strategic choice. One party caucus leader explained that he carefully recruited a vanguard to instigate brawls by thinking about their districts, personal characteristics and willingness to take bold actions, adding that “the most important thing is to show off your attitude.”

Not surprisingly, legislators often turn up dressed for combat, which suggests they know what’s coming: Note the number of raincoats and track suits in the video footage of the pork fight.

Brawling is a form of political communication — legislators are sending a signal about themselves to some group of people who can help them politically. The target audience might be party elites, rank-and-file party members, specific interest groups or financial supporters.

In Taiwan, where political parties command strong and reliable public support and party leaders cannot unilaterally determine nominations, legislators may see the need to impress party loyalists in the general public. A messy public fight could demonstrate to their party’s die-hard supporters that legislators not only support the party’s agenda, but they will literally fight for it.

But not everyone approves of brawling

A paper by Nathan Batto and Emily Beaulieu Bacchus looking at a case from 2017 sheds light on how brawls can split opinion. Taiwan’s legislature held two special sessions to pass two controversial bills, pension changes and an infrastructure package. While brawls might have been expected in both sessions, the pension bill passed peacefully while the infrastructure bill was passed after a week of intense disruption.

The DPP majority initiated the bills, while the KMT minority opposed both proposals. Like pork imports, neither of these two issues is directly related to the central axis that structures Taiwanese politics, which is about identity, sovereignty and Taiwan’s relationship to China.

Batto and Bacchus surveyed a group of respondents before, between and after the two sessions. The survey asked respondents to rate the performance of the legislature on a scale of zero to 10. Most people reacted positively to the first session, when the legislature successfully and peacefully dealt with the controversial pension bill.

But respondents reacted negatively to the second, more turbulent, session. On average, they gave the legislature’s performance before the first session a score of 3.71, which rose to 3.94 between the two sessions (after the peaceful passage of the pension changes), then plunged to 3.58 after the second, confrontation-ridden session on infrastructure.

When we analyzed the results by which party they supported and how strongly, the pattern among strong KMT supporters was quite different. They started with a score of 2.17, fell to 2.06, and then rose back to 2.13. Unlike the others in the survey, KMT supporters reacted negatively when their side lost peacefully — and positively when their side physically resisted. We observed similar patterns on other questions, such as how much respondents liked individual brawling or non-brawling legislators. Strong partisan supporters of the minority party consistently approved of brawlers, while everyone else did not.

It’s not just Taiwan — disruptive tactics get rewarded around the world

In part, KMT legislators probably threw pork intestines to impress local pork producers or concerned consumers. Their more important audience was hard-core party loyalists, who want to see their legislators fighting hard for party interests and taking a firm stand against the other party.

The signaling techniques politicians use differ across time and place. But the surprising headlines about norm-busting behavior that looks irrational — whether it’s barricading doors in the capitol building (South Korea), throwing eggs at opponents (Ukraine), or shouting “You lie!” in the middle of the president’s State of the Union address (United States) — can reveal a calculated strategy aimed at riling up a politician’s base.

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Nathan Batto is associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica and the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University.

Shelley Rigger is the Brown professor of political science at Davidson College and the author of “Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2011).