Fri, Jun 10, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Next series of reforms depends on public will

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

The so-called "functional National Assembly" last week overcame obstruction by small parties to overwhelmingly ratify a package of constitutional amendments that included -- most importantly -- the permanent abolition of the assembly itself, a reduction of legislative seats as well as the incorporation of public referendums to approve future constitutional changes.

Wrapping up what President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) characterized as "the first stage of constitutional reform," the opening of the "second-stage constitutional reengineering project" will no doubt provide the next arena for political wrestling.

Despite supporting the first stage of constitutional amendments, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has refused to cooperate with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to undertake more constitutional reforms.

Will Chen and his DPP be able to build public support to push forward the constitutional re-engineering project?

Conventional wisdom says that it is the government that dictates most reforms. But if the political agenda has changed, so has the means of achieving it.

In the case of Taiwan's early constitutional reform, it was strong social pressure that forced most political parties to accept the four proposals for constitutional reform.

This demonstrates that most of the important changes the electorate seeks can be advanced through collective community action. The role of government in this new vehicle for change is to organize, publicize, catalyze and -- sometimes -- partially to subsidize. It is not to govern, but to communicate.

Exhausted by partisan disputes and political wrestling in the legislative branch and disappointed with a severe lack of government effectiveness for nearly a decade, it was the general public -- together with key social groups -- that forced most political parties to endorse the constitutional resolutions in the legislature last August.

The DPP, while upholding the democratic principle of the people's right to hold a referendum on major policies, played an educational role in introducing the right to referendums into the constitutional structure.

Reducing the number of seats in the legislature from 225 to 113 and changing the electoral rules from the old multi-seat system to a new "single-member district, two-vote" system also opens an opportunity to upgrade the quality and efficiency of the legislature.

For decades, Taiwan's unique single non-transferable voting system has been a political tumor to the country's democratic consolidation. It has encouraged the growth of "black gold" politics and an unhealthy legislative culture. The Legislative Yuan has become a political circus full of clowns, with the media playing a supplementary role in encouraging misconduct by reporting antagonism and tension, rather rational policy debates.

Institutional reform is one thing, but finding a way to build a mature political culture constitutes an even more urgent task for Taiwanese politics. Finding ways to use public awareness to drive future constitutional reforms constitutes the greatest challenge for democratization.

As the electorate has become more opinionated and confident, its distrust of politicians, parties and all institutions has become more profound. This shift in the public mood away from blind faith and toward self-reliance constitutes a new demand for public representation.

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