What is this mysterious new constitution President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) loves to talk about? Why does he advance it, and should Taiwanese endorse it? While most articles on the topic focus on the independence-related ramifications of a new constitution, this article is dedicated to discussing these questions in a legal, practical and political light.
First, why are we talking about a new constitution? We are talking about it because Chen is talking about it. Chen advances it because he is seeking re-election, because he is a staunch nationalist and because he genuinely believes Taiwan's Constitution is neither adequately democratic, nor efficient, nor appropriate for the citizenry over which it governs. Chen's "new constitution" rhetoric is not merely a re-election gimmick because there are actual, observable problems with the current organization of the government and there are real advantages in resolving them.
Chen has argued that Taiwan needs a new constitution in order to strengthen its democracy. Taiwan's democracy is strong and suffers few democratic weaknesses. Importantly, what it does suffer is due to redundancy in government and a consequent lack of efficiency and accountability. Fixing these weaknesses could improve the government's ability to expediently respond to the needs of the public and pass legislation accordingly.
Let us look at the weaknesses of Taiwan's democracy in order to assess whether strengthening it is worth the effort.
The government is neither purely presidential nor purely parliamentary. Rather, the president shares power with the president of the Executive Yuan, the premier. The premier's powers mainly derive from his position on the Executive Yuan Council, which, according to the Constitution, drafts "statutory or budgetary bills or bills concerning martial law, amnesty, declaration of war, conclusion of peace or treaties, and other important affairs," that is, essentially anything it wants, before presenting them to the legislature for approval.
Once a bill is drafted by the council, it is almost always passed by the Executive Yuan, thus the executive body is not a check in and of itself. The only check on the Executive Yuan or president's power lies in the Legislative Yuan's ability to amend or reject proposed legislation.
However, because the president may unilaterally appoint and dismiss the premier, these powers are, for all intents and purposes, the president's powers. Furthermore, because the president is one layer removed from the Executive Yuan, he is able to escape blame for stymied legislation or overly forceful legislation-making, and he can pin them on the premier instead.
For example, when Chen ordered the termination of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant's construction, he responded to criticism by removing the premier. This layer of insulation from accountability permits the president to behave slightly more authoritatively than he would were he directly a part of the executive branch and were there not this cushion.
The next redundancy is that of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan. The two are essentially the same in representative composition (the Constitution calls for the National Assembly delegates to be elected "by proportional representation based on the election of the Legislative Yuan") and the assembly's powers are so few that it might as well be disbanded.