The National Assembly recently passed amendments to the Constitution, and President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has announced that he will push for a second stage of constitutional reform in order to create a new constitution that is in step with the times and a better fit for Taiwan's situation.
While discussing whether or not this second stage should be implemented, many political scientists are proposing the adoption of a Cabinet system. This proposal imagines that amending the Constitution to establish a strong Cabinet system would restore the legitimacy of the Constitution, allowing that document's problems to be resolved in one swift stroke. Media reports on the superiority of the Cabinet system make it seem as if that would be the only way to resolve Taiwan's constitutional issues.
Political scientists often hold up the superiority of the Cabinet system based on a theoretical basis. Their reasons are that a Cabinet system would avoid the constitutional deadlock created under the presidential system as a result of the refusal of the executive branch and the legislative branch to compromise, the lack of competition in a presidential system and presidential despotism. They also say it would establish a neutral head of state and set up a mechanism for cross-party cooperation.
The British experience is often cited as an example. But if we look at the situation in some of the countries that have emulated the British system, we may have to reconsider the question of whether the Cabinet system is really so superior.
When Japan, in accordance with its new Constitution, set up a Cabinet system after World War II, the British Cabinet system was its blueprint. The practical experience over the past 60 years, however, has shown that Japan cannot rid itself of political corruption.
In the past, when the Liberal Democrats all but dominated Japanese politics, Cabinet posts were distributed based on the strength of the different factions and parliamentary seats were distributed according to age and seniority. There was even an unwritten rule that members of parliament who had served five terms were qualified for a Cabinet post, while those who had served two terms were qualified for a deputy Cabinet post. This practice continued even under coalition governments -- the only difference being that it now applied to the different parties instead of to the different factions. What in theory was a beautiful example of cross-party cooperation was in fact a matter of no-holds-barred logrolling.
After its independence, Malaysia set up a constitutional monarchy with a symbolic head of state and a Cabinet system modeled on the British one. Forty years on, however, Malaysia is still an authoritarian state, and there are often reports in the international media on its human rights situation.
After 40 years, the Malaysian parliament was under total control of the ruling party and could not fulfill any of its monitoring duties. If the divisions of power are sidestepped under a Cabinet system, this can lead to one man achieving even greater power than under a presidential system.
Cyprus also used Britain as a model when it set up a constitutional framework with a Cabinet system following its independence. In consideration of differences between the minority population of Turks and the Greeks, there was proportional distribution of Cabinet posts and parliamentary seats. This should have paved the way for political cooperation.