Why on earth is President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) spending so much time talking about the "second phase of constitutional reform?" After all, there have already been seven sessions of constitutional reform in the past 14 years. Perhaps we should assume that Chen thinks that everything accomplished by the National Assembly constituted a drawn-out first stage, while the "second stage" is to be characterized by the new, as yet untried, legislature/referendum route. The idea seems to be that we should not think of more constitutional reform as being part of a continuum going back to the early 1990s but rather as a bold departure into new territory.
We have become familiar enough with Chen's bold departures over the last five years to know how they fizzle out ignominiously due to the pan-greens' lack of a legislative majority. These proposed constitutional reforms will meet the same fate.
So far a number of proposals have been made as to what the reforms should contain. The current list contains issues such as whether to change the country's political system to a presidential system or parliamentary system; whether the Taiwan provincial government should be abolished; lowering the voting age from 20 to 18; adopting a voluntary military service system; and -- most controversially -- the abolition of elections for local government leaders below the county level.
The problem with this list is that there is an obvious tension between what is sensible, and the interests of either the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or the pan-blue camp. Take for example the question of a cabinet or presidential system. Given Taiwan's current power structure, it seems obvious that a cabinet system would be the way to go to get rid of gridlock. Yes, we know perfectly well that that would mean giving the pan-blue traitors, gangsters and bagmen more power than they currently have. But taking the long view, the current pan-blue control of the legislature should not be taken as permanent -- it would be a poor lookout for Taiwanese democracy if it were. And if it comes down to giving the president or parliament more power, historical reasons alone should be a persuasive argument for supporting the latter. But given that the presidency is where the DPP currently has its strength, it is not surprising that the party seems to favor a presidential system -- despite gloomy historical precedent and the fact that this would necessitate much greater constitutional tinkering.
As for the other proposals, lowering the voting age would be opposed by the pan-blues because young people tend to vote green, the Taiwan Provincial Government is a shibboleth for greater China consciousness that the blues would be reluctant to let go of, a volunteer military hardly makes sense until the money to sustain it can be found and local governments are strongholds of power -- and, of course, corruption -- that the blues, especially the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will never voluntarily give up.
What we have then is a list of reform proposals that have no chance of getting the legislative approval they need before being put to a referendum vote, as along as the legislature is dominated by the pan-blues. Since this is so blindingly obvious, we have to ask why the president is spending time on this rather than something more useful. Such as?
How about a long term re-think of economic strategy? Taiwan's days as a low-cost manufacturing hub are long gone, money is flooding into China, and what's left for the people of Taiwan? The "China fever" crowd have a narrative about Taiwan's place in the economic world as China rises, and the greens have nothing to counter this with. They need to have their own narrative and there needs to be a national debate. Getting this rolling would be a useful thing for Chen to do. But he prefers waffle about constitutional change instead.
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