Amid fuss over the Kaohsiung mayoral court case and the deliberations of the Central Election Commission on referendum protocol, one item of electoral news slipped by this week with barely a sound.
The Council of Indigenous Peoples has been lobbying, with limited success, for the implementation of autonomy laws that would allow Aborigines to take more control in their homelands.
In a boost for the council, and in the wake of the UN finally completing its declaration on indigenous rights, the Cabinet this week signed off on an autonomy bill that would redesignate Aboriginal territory as county-level administrative areas, a development with potentially far-reaching effects on the environment, the water supply, tourism, ethnic relations (thousands of non-Aborigines reside legally in these areas) and other matters of national importance.
This development caps off a largely suppressed campaign that started in the 1940s, when a number of Aboriginal activists advocated a single county-level district for their communities. Sadly, they were tortured and executed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government for, among other things, having the temerity to believe the promise of equality in the Constitution of the Republic of China.
Today, every Aboriginal township belongs to a county with a majority Han population. And although Aboriginal townships enjoy representation in county councils, they simply do not have the numbers to effect changes -- especially those that could irritate the Han majority or vested interests -- or to express the diversity of opinion in Aboriginal Taiwan.
The Cabinet bill could change all that, though the formation of a new county or counties would require lengthy negotiation with county governments. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which any county government would willingly cede most of its mountainous territory to a pan-ethnic enclave.
The real question is what the legislature will do with this bill. On paper, Aboriginal activists might express optimism at its prospects given that the KMT enjoys solid support from every one of Taiwan's ethnic minorities, Aboriginal or not. Unfortunately for them, the reality is harsher than it appears.
Before the legislature was downsized, eight seats were reserved for Aboriginal legislators -- four from "mountain" areas and four from "plains" areas. In addition, political parties tended to add Aboriginal candidates to legislator-at-large lists to appear ethnically diverse. Dramatic over-representation of Aborigines in proportional terms was the result.
With the halving of the legislature, the number of reserved Aboriginal seats dropped from eight to six, which only enhanced Aboriginal over-representation. But the most notable thing was what did not change: the discredited single-vote, multiple-member system.
The legislature elected not to make Aboriginal people vote for a sole legislator in one of six districts, a decision that benefits incumbent Aboriginal legislators. It is unclear why Aboriginal people were considered unfit for the new system, but it can be assumed that the KMT wanted to keep its existing Aboriginal legislators on side, and that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wanted to retain a system that gives them a faint hope of slipping a DPP Aboriginal representative into the legislature.