On Friday evening the Legislative Yuan conducted a vote on a Cabinet proposal to review the Referendum Law (
The Referendum Law's passage on Nov. 27 symbolizes a milestone in Taiwan's democratization. However, the DPP, which for several decades has viewed referendums as one of its central political platforms, saw the passage of the law as a major defeat because the content of the law, except for the title, was based on a version drafted by the majority alliance formed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party(PFP).
On Dec. 10, the Cabinet insisted on proposing a review of some of the articles despite the ruling party's minority position in the legislature. Some of the main points of the proposal were that the law is ineffectual and exists in name only, that the articles in question restrict the people's right to exercise power, that these articles run counter to the spirit of the Constitution and that the Legislature had expanded its power improperly through those articles.
Legally, the Cabinet's reasons for the review proposal were very clear.
But the KMT rejected the Cabinet's proposal for a review of the entire Law because the opposition did not want to touch Article 17 -- the "defensive referendum" article -- a review of which might have freed the administration of President Chen Shui-bian (
There were two objectives of the Cabinet's review proposal: one was to abolish the legislature's power to initiate a referendum; the other was to abolish the referendum review committee that could restrict the people's right to initiate referendums.
The first issue involves concerns over expansion of the legislature's power -- though at least the law as written does not obstruct referendums.
The second issue, involving the review committee, concerns suspicions that representative democracy may be riding roughshod over direct democracy -- though the committee could follow a good precedent if it is formed after the model of the Central Election Commission and only handles administrative procedures, and reviews documentation as a formality.
In the history of the Republic of China's Constitution, this was the first review proposal from the Cabinet ever to be shot down by the legislature. However, the Constitution, due to the KMTs' past amendments, does not require the premier to step down as a result of the failure.
The KMT has sneered at the premier for not stepping down but it did not dare to risk a no-confidence vote, as the review proposal was in accordance with constitutional provisions.
If the KMT were sincere about political reform it would have used the opportunity to vote the premier out. The president would then have been able to dissolve the legislature and a legislative election would have been held along with the presidential election on March 20. That would have hastened reform of the legislature and accomplished two tasks in one stroke.
The noisy wrangling at the legislature is nothing more than empty gesturing, and will have no effect on public opinion or the president's plan to hold a defensive referendum. The Referendum Law will force both the pan-blue and pan-green camps to give up their dogmatism and move toward the middle ground. Behind the agitated language of politicians, the international community should be able to see the Taiwanese people's ability to oversee their country's politics. Referendums have nothing to do with independence. They are merely a starting point on the long road toward direct democracy.
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