Taiwan passes controversial reform bill after violence and protests

<span>Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) hold up a ball on which is printed: ‘Reject China's interference In politics’.</span><span>Photograph: Chiang Ying-ying/AP</span>
Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) hold up a ball on which is printed: ‘Reject China's interference In politics’.Photograph: Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Taiwan’s opposition-controlled parliament has passed a controversial reform bill after days of hostile debate and physical fights between MPs inside, and mass protests by citizens outside.

The bills passed 58 votes to 45, Bloomberg reported, after a third reading on Tuesday evening in Taipei during which there were further scuffles and members of the ruling party throwing paper planes and hurling garbage bags at the opposition.

The bills were driven by the two major opposition parties, the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and populist Taiwan People’s party (TPP), which together hold a majority of the parliament after gaining ground over the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) in January’s elections. The DPP won the presidency, with Lai Ching-te formally inaugurated last Monday.

Late on Tuesday, the ruling party told media it would reject the new bill and send it back for review. The party also said it would seek a legal ruling on its constitutionality. Caucus whip Ker Chien-ming said the content of the bill was “absolutely unconstitutional”, and also questioned the legality of the voting process.

The bills sought to expand the legislature’s power to call on and question officials, military figures, and citizens, as well as demand documents. The DPP has accused the opposition of wanting to use the reforms to undermine Lai’s presidency.

Taiwan already has a branch of government – the control yuan – with the power to investigate government officials and order impeachments. On Thursday its spokesperson warned the new bill risked violating the separation of powers, Bloomberg reported.

When the final votes were tallied, triumphant KMT and TPP legislators waved small balloons the shape of suns. Remnants of more than a week of hostilities and late-night deliberations, including placards, flowers, and piles of furniture surrounded the parliamentarians, while tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside.

After the bill passed, KMT caucus whip Fu Kun-chi announced the opposition would create a special task force to investigate alleged corruption within the DPP.

Related: Lai Ching-te’s first day as Taiwan president marked by protests

Readings of the bill repeatedly stretched to midnight amid delays and hostilities, with the DPP and supporters accusing the opposition of undermining Taiwan’s democratic processes to push the bill through. Last week confrontations between opposing legislators turned violent, with at least two MPs briefly treated in hospital.

Proponents say legislative reform is needed in Taiwan for greater accountability and argue that these bills are not dissimilar to some which the ruling DPP attempted to introduce when they had a legislative majority.

However, critics have said the bills go further than the DPP’s attempts, and are also ill-defined, with many citing a newly introduced criminal offence of “contempt of congress”. They have said the proposed law can easily be abused to attack political opponents and disrupt the functioning of Lai’s administration.

Translations of the amendments, provided earlier in the week, included stipulations that officials under questioning can be fined for giving false statements, or “reverse-questioning”, a term which critics said was undefined and most likely went against free speech.

The Taiwan Bar Association had previously accused the opposition parties of having “failed to substantively discuss or review” the bills before pushing them through.

Outside the building tens of thousands of people gathered in protest against the bills for the third time in a week. Friday had drawn the largest crowd, with estimates of between 50,000 and 100,000 people. The protests have grown more organised with each showing, with crowd control measures, medical care, food and water, and garbage collection. The rally had begun on Tuesday morning, with a full day of speakers and musical acts. Crowds swelled after work and school finished around the same time the bill passed.

The protests are the largest Taiwan has seen since the 2014 Sunflower Movement – a time that many protesters this week referenced and drew inspiration from. Many told the Guardian they were prepared to continue protesting against what they saw as undemocratic behaviour by the opposition.

Lai is likely to face a difficult first term with a hostile parliament, while also managing China’s threats to annex Taiwan.

On Saturday, Lai offered his support to the previous night’s protests, saying “the power of Taiwan’s civil society is in full display”.

“The deliberations of the legislative yuan should abide by procedural justice,” he said, accusing the opposition of “forcing votes through a majority and depriving the legislative yuan of the bill’s due discussion”.