Tue, Apr 08, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Root of crisis lies in Constitution

By Yen Chueh-an 顏厥安

The student occupation of the legislative chamber has now been going on for more than two weeks. The government, which clearly pays no attention to public opinion, wants to continue its suppression. The result could be that the constitutional crisis that has been highlighted by the controversy over the cross-strait service trade agreement not only continues, but deepens.

What is a constitutional crisis? In theory, this occurs when the constitutional system — mainly, but not only, the Constitution — is no longer able to respond to major political controversies or conflicts, and the resulting confrontation and deadlock renders important government institutions incapable of functioning, bringing them to a standstill. To put it plainly — this happened when strongly disliked officials — President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) — did not have to step down, but continued to push through unpopular policies, such as the service trade agreement or the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao (貢寮) District, New Taipei City.

What are some of the main systemic causes of this constitutional crisis?

First, a major cause is the strong presidency. “Strong presidency” is often simplistically and wrongly understood to mean that the president holds great powers, but carries no responsibilities. The key point, however, is not that the president has a lot of power, but rather that he or she can act as if he or she did, which in effect makes the president oblivious to anything but power.

This situation is a result of the fact that the president is not answerable to any institution charged with placing checks and balances on the presidency, so that presidents are completely free to appoint any important official they want, while it is extremely difficult to muster the numbers required to recall or impeach a president. This situation, which makes the president blind to anything but his or her own power, will either result in the president going on a “power rampage” or a president still feeling good about himself, despite the fact that his approval rating has dropped to 9 percent.

Second, none of the powerful officials in the Cabinet, including the premier, are elected, and there is not even the pretense that their appointment requires legislative approval. This kind of power arrangement very easily results in a narcissistic power elite that, along with the bureaucracy, metamorphoses into a dominant para-aristocracy. When the legitimacy of the whole government is built on the election of a single person — the president — the relationship between the president and the other government officials is not one of appointment, but rather one of benevolent gifts and the bestowing of titles, while public opinion is forever relegated to a secondary concern.

Third, the distribution of legislative seats and the electoral system brought about by this rotten Constitution have created a distorted party and constituency distribution, and thus distorted the legislature’s representativeness. Although Taipei is a pro-KMT area, the DPP still receives more than 40 percent of the vote in elections, but they only have one legislative seat. In the previous legislature, that number was zero and there are no guarantees that the number will increase after the next legislative election.

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