Mon, Dec 15, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Tweak the system, do not scrap it

By Tsai Jung-hsiang 蔡榮祥

The results of the Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections did not only change the traditional blue-green division of Taiwan’s fundamental political landscape, it also shook up the power distribution within the central government: Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) stepped down as premier as soon as the electoral results became clear and three days later, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) resigned as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

Many people think the semi-presidential system is the main factor in a constitutional crisis, because it gives the president strong powers without accompanying accountability and turns the premier into a presidential chief-of-staff who may be sacrificed at any time to help the president avert a crisis. Some people feel that this system is unworkable and are suggesting that the Cabinet system be changed.

The question is, will replacing the semi-presidential system with a Cabinet system solve the constitutional crisis? This question can be approached from two perspectives: one theoretical and the other practical.

Theoretically, a Cabinet system is even more of a winner-takes-all system than a presidential or semi-presidential system. Under a Cabinet system, the prime minister or premier controls both the executive and the legislative arms of government, unless the Cabinet is one made up of several parties, in which case the parties in the coalition government share the executive and legislative powers.

In semi-presidential and presidential systems, if the same party holds both the presidency and the parliamentary majority, then the system will, just like in a Cabinet system, be one in which the winner takes all.

However, if the president and the parliamentary members of his or her party fare differently in elections, lawmakers will sometimes distance themselves from the president and vote against bills that they support. This makes it clear that the winner-takes-all component is weaker in a semi-presidential or a presidential system than in a Cabinet system.

Switching to a Cabinet system will not solve the problem of excessive amounts of power being concentrated in the hands of the president under a semi-presidential system. Overall, the premier or prime minister in a Cabinet system will be more powerful than a president. In addition, the Cabinet system also involves a transparency issue, as policies are often decided in closed-door Cabinet meetings, making it impossible to oversee the legislative process.

Taiwan’s next presidential election in 2016 will be the fifth direct presidential election. Once direct presidential elections were introduced, it became difficult to turn the presidency into a figurehead position, because doing so would be contrary to the public’s will.

For example, after indirect presidential elections in the Czech Republic — a European democracy — were transformed to direct ones, the position’s real power increased and the Czech president now frequently interferes with administrative operations.

In Taiwan’s semi-presidential system, the president appoints the premier, but does not need the approval of the legislature to do so. Just like in Russia’s mixed presidential-parliamentary system — a subvariety of the semi-presidential system — the result in Taiwan has been operational problems, making it easier for the president to expand his power and enhancing the likelihood that democracy will collapse.

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