Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Reform can boost Taiwan-US ties

By Nat Bellocchi白樂崎

China is pressing the US at the highest levels to discontinue arms sales to Taiwan, and to restrain Taiwan from making changes to its Constitution. They know well that the arms sales demand is a non-starter. But they hope that they can gain US support for their blanket opposition to constitutional reform.

The US has been firm in opposing China's position on arms sales, but it is less clear on the constitutional issue. It gained agreement that Taiwan would avoid matters of sovereignty in the process of constitutional change. But Washington did not voice opposition to changes that are legitimate reforms of national governance.

Beijing, on the other hand, opposes any change.

This effort to amend the Constitution is the first since the process for doing so was altered. The law now requires the Legislative Yuan, whose previous role in the process was minimal, to play a key part. It must debate and approve each amendment with the support of at least 75 percent of its members. Then it must call a special session of the dormant National Assembly to vote on the proposed changes. Here too, there must be at least 75 percent acceptance.

This is a nightmarish process which a referendum would have avoided. It would have given the people, instead of politicians, a greater say in constitutional change. But China issued threats, and the US was presumably concerned that a referendum would empower more extreme pro-independence elements, risking a reaction from Beijing. It's the usual scenario: China, frightened by the possibility of people voting on sensitive issues, threatens war. The US, wanting to prevent war despite its support for democracy, presses Taiwan to compromise.

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has clearly enunciated the constitutional changes the government wants to make in the present reform process. These include reducing the size of the Legislative Yuan and altering its method of electing members; changing the relationship between the president, premier and the legislature; reducing the levels of government to three; giving the president expanded veto power and abolishing the National Assembly. Human rights and economic provisions will also be addressed.

All of these issues will be debated publicly in open forums before being discussed in the Legislative Yuan. Doubtless there would also be open forums initiated by nongovernmental organizations and other interest groups that will lobby for other changes opposed by government. This kind of public debate will doubtless take place well into next year. At some point, possibly in 2006, the government will presumably introduce bills related to the Constitution to the Legislative Yuan.

Whatever the outcome of this December's legislative elections, the debate in the legislature is likely to be strenuous and progress far less quickly than the government would like. The pace of the process will be influenced by the profile of the political parties and by the need for a 75 percent majority.

Even under the most optimistic scenario for the pan-green camp, 75 percent approval on any change is unlikely. Differences within the governing coalition might split votes and hinder getting that percentage. In the best of circumstances, therefore, amending the many constitutional problems will require considerable compromise. And after all the debates and compromises have led to the passage of bills, an ad hoc National Assembly will then have to debate and pass the amendments approved by the legislature. There, votes along party lines are inevitable and could present still more difficulties.

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