The Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) legislators recently united under the party whip to push through the amendment to the Local Government Act (地方制度法). Even President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has carefully nurtured his image as a mild-mannered, solemn and humble president, said with satisfaction that Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) was correct in saying that the KMT finally looks like a “real party.”
But at a time when Ma and Wang are so content with the party’s performance, Taiwan’s constitutional politics is suffering a serious crisis as the nation’s political system turns into an indefinable monster. Let us take a look at how the KMT passed the act.
On the surface, the KMT legislators’ obedience to party discipline was key to the success, but the only reason the party’s whip was successfully wielded was that the KMT had accepted its lawmakers’ suggestion that the NT$45,000 monthly stipend be cancelled for township representatives that become district advisers when the new direct municipalities are implemented.
That seems to imply that party discipline is expected to uphold the will of lawmakers rather than that of KMT Secretary-General King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), and that Wang’s “real party” is a party that obeys its lawmakers.
Since King’s original amendment proposal was unsatisfactory, there is nothing wrong listening to the party’s legislators.
However, the lawmakers also dominate other decisions. They vetoed Ma’s nominee for the Control Yuan vice presidency and requested that nominees for both the Council of Grand Justices and the Examination Yuan visit the legislature as a show of respect. Such questionable moves forced Ma to go back on his promise to separate the government and the party and double as KMT chairman in order to control legislators.
KMT legislators also unexpectedly joined the opposition in a populist approach over the US beef import issue and rejected Ma’s promise to Washington, destroying his political arrangements.
In other words, KMT legislators have adopted a tough approach toward the government and their party. Why? Because of the poor quality of Ma’s decisions and performance and his loss of authority, but there are also some systemic problems.
First, the adoption of a single member electoral district system for the legislative elections. When voters wanted to demand political accountability from a legislator under the old multi-member electoral district system, a legislator could hide among party colleagues. A candidate could also be elected by securing just 5 percent to 10 percent of the vote, either through some unique ideology or through vote buying. Under the new system, however, candidates must win support by directly facing voters in their district alone, and they must take responsibility for all party policies. That means a legislator hoping to be re-elected will reject unfavorable KMT policies and disobey the party.
Second, the legislature’s right to approve the nominee for the premiership was abolished through constitutional amendment. In return, the president dare not ask for a presidential veto, the same right to dissolve the legislature that exists under the French system, and the right to launch a referendum. As a result, Ma has no constitutional tool for dealing with the deadlock between the executive and the legislative branches, and so he must let the legislature direct key policies.
There was another reason why the Local Government Act was passed — King was able to communicate with the legislature and he decided that in future, Ma would take over part of the communications with legislators.
In the past, national policy was formed through interaction between the Cabinet and the legislature, but now Ma and the KMT secretary-general, who is external to the system, interact directly with the legislature, diminishing the Cabinet’s role. The secretary-general can also give in to the legislature, but he must be tough in his interactions with the Cabinet lest policymaking be reduced to chaos. This has elevated the KMT secretary-general post to an unprecedented status, surpassing the level it reached during the Chiang era.
Ma, King and Wang have together created an unprecedented system for national power. It is not a presidential system, because the president does not have the right to veto major policy decisions by the legislature. It is not a semi-presidential system, because the Cabinet no longer plays a part in policymaking. It is not a Cabinet system, because the Cabinet must listen to the legislature through the party secretary-general. It is not a democratic system, because the constitutional institutions must listen to the decisions made by the secretary-general, who is external to the constitutional system. It is not a totalitarian system, because party and government cannot order the legislature around.
The KMT is not an externally created party, because it is not controlled by labor unions or other non-governmental organizations, nor is it an internally created party because the secretary-general, who now holds the most power. is a position external to the system. Nor does the party lead the government, assist the government or remain separate from the government.
Such a system can only be described as an indefinable monster.
In this indescribable system, the legislature is very powerful. It may correctly reflect public opinion, but it is even better at being populist, and then passing responsibility to the impotent president and Cabinet. Being led by the nose by its populism, it is very unlikely that the government will manage to lay down any long-term plans or come up with reasonable foreign policy.
A constitutional crisis is around the corner, but regrettably, the government rejoices in the knowledge that the KMT now is more like a “real party,” while the public waits in vain for systemic improvements and ideas for the future.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG AND PERRY SVENSSON
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