Sat, Jun 11, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: The worst is yet to come

It is curious that so much has been said of the much vaunted "second stage of constitutional reforms," especially as we have had six -- or is it seven? -- rounds already in the past 15 years, while the hard work of implementing the set of reforms that passed on Tuesday is very far from being completed. In fact, the trouble is only just about to begin.

The problem revolves around the changes in the electoral system whereby the current 28 multi-member districts are to be changed into 73 single-member ones. Little thought has been given as to how this is to be carried out, and only now are the various players in the upcoming dram beginning to rehearse their parts.

The two principal ways of organizing electoral boundary drawing are epitomized by British and US practices. In the British system a special body -- the Boundary Commission -- is charged with drawing fair electoral boundaries. The commission is rigorously impartial, an impartiality upheld by its own code of practice, the long tradition of impartiality of the UK civil service as a whole, and public and parliamentary oversight. The commission looks at a vast array of data -- from census returns to commuting patterns -- and holds public enquiries to carry out its task. Its results are respected across the political spectrum.

In the US system, on the other hand, electoral boundaries are usually drawn up by the governing party in the state legislature. Creative drawing to favor politically partisan ends has turned the House of Representatives into an affront to democracy -- Pyongyang on the Potomac, as The Economist memorably called it. Of its 425 seats, fewer than 30 and perhaps as few as 13 have any chance of changing hands in an election.

Currently in Taiwan, the authority for drawing boundaries rests with the Central Election Commission, which has, in its turn, asked the city and county-level commissions to make recommendations. The problem here is that the pan-blues contest that the CEC has been too willing to do the bidding of the ruling party to be considered an impartial arbiter. It doesn't matter that this is a pan-blue canard against an honorable body. As long as a goodly proportion of the electorate -- misguided though they might be -- believes it, the system's credibility is damaged. And this is not something that a weak democracy such as Taiwan's can really afford.

The alternative, however, is almost too obscene to contemplate: that the legislature itself does the redrawing. It has been suggested, by both the People First Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, that the legislature convene a special committee to oversee the task. After the partisan farce of the March 19 Shooting Investigation Special Committee, it is impossible to imagine the legislature capable of carrying out the task in an acceptable way. Nevertheless it is quite possible that the pan-blue controlled legislature might pass a law giving itself the power to do this -- using its accusations of CEC partisanship as justification.

The Democratic Progressive Party appeared earlier this year to be in favor of some kind of special commission appointed by the president to conduct the boundary changes. The problem is that any committee which did not have representatives from the political parties on it would always be accused by those parties of acting in a partisan manner against them. Yet to include party representatives will lead to the usual horse-trading and booty-sharing we are so uncomfortably familiar with.

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