In the wake of the nine-in-one elections, people throughout the country are baying for reform, and the political parties are offering all kinds of thoughts and ideas about what a constitutional government should look like.
The Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) recent electoral rout is largely attributable to dissatisfaction with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Not only does he wield power in his capacity as president, he also had control over the legislature by virtue of the fact that he was also KMT chairman, as the party enjoys a legislative majority. Regardless, he stands in opposition to the prevailing public mood on many issues.
Few would argue that given the outcome of the elections, the public was clearly targeting the presidency and the legislature. This is what we could term a “constitutional moment,” one that the nation needs to seize: It is an opportunity that cannot be missed for us to change a system of constitutional government that simply does not work.
The sheer number and variety of ideas for reform forthcoming from all quarters has been quite dazzling. The Constitution is the country’s most fundamental law, encapsulating sovereign power at its essence, but also concerning the operation of day-to-day political life.
What is required is a constitution drafted by Taiwanese, for Taiwan. Many people want a new constitution, a rectification of the nation’s name and progress toward making Taiwan operate like a regular country. However, due to practical considerations and external pressure, what political parties and politicians are putting on the table are mainly mere constitutional amendments, hoping to revise the existing Constitution to reform the system of constitutional government on behalf of the country and the people who live in it.
Aside from the difference between drawing up a new constitution and amending the existing one, everyone has their own ideas about how changing the system should be carried out. Due to the general sense of disillusionment with how the president and the legislature operate together, the debate on reform has taken the form of a discussion on whether we should adopt a presidential system or a Cabinet system.
The nation has operated a presidential system for many years. It has been in place through five direct elections. In the beginning, it consolidated national consciousness and declared this to the international community.
Ma has abused his office, to widespread condemnation. However, there is nothing the public can do, as he has a fixed term in office and the threshold for recall is too high. He has overstepped his powers and he is not subject to oversight. This has been exacerbated by Beijing’s increasingly brazen interference in the presidential election process. All of this means that there need to be changes made to the presidential system as it stands.
This is why there have been calls for a shift to a Cabinet system. These calls have been taken more seriously after New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), who is standing for the KMT chairmanship following Ma’s resignation, expressed support for the idea.
Another issue that has been given attention together with the discussion of a Cabinet system is reform to the way legislators are elected. In particular, the election of district legislators and legislators-at-large, and the way constituencies are drawn up are inappropriate. This results in blocked smaller parties and creates a situation where the weight and value of votes differ depending on where you live.
These are issues that must be addressed as part of the reforms, which should also remove the Examination Yuan and the Control Yuan, which are not operating efficiently.
In addition, the relationship between central and local governments must also be changed. The central government is hoarding both power and money, but is shifting responsibility for harmful incidents, such as the various food safety crises, to local governments, and it is time that it returned some of its powers to the local government level.
The most basic requirement for constitutional reform is that it must not run counter to public opinion. The Constitution is the guarantor of the public’s rights, but the current Constitution provides incomplete protection for human rights. The right to work, as well as environmental, residence and privacy rights should be included in the Constitution.
The requirements for two issues that affect the rights and interests of the public are too stringent and should be relaxed. The voting age is 20 years, which is higher than in most countries, and there is now a public consensus that this should be lowered to 18 years. The requirements for passing an amendment are very strict, and this is limiting the public’s right to amend the Constitution. While it is true that amending the Constitution too frequently is not a good thing, the requirements for passing an amendment are clearly unreasonable.
There have been seven amendments to the Constitution, but Taiwanese public opinion was a factor when the Constitution was passed in China more than half a century ago. It is built on the premise of unification and depriving the public of the right to determine the future of their country. The problems that have appeared following the seven amendments, due to their short-sightedness, have made reform necessary.
There is now an opportunity for reform, and since public opinion is in favor, implementing it to reorganize the government is something that everyone wants. However, such reform involves many different aspects, and there are different ideals, benefits and interests, as well public opinion that must be taken into consideration. This means that it will be an arduous process.
Last Friday, the legislature discussed the establishment of a constitutional amendment committee, and some people have seen this as the beginning of reform. However, due to the failures of representative democracy, political parties and politicians often let the public down, and non-governmental organizations have therefore advocated for thorough bottom-up constitutional reform and demanded that recall legislation, the Referendum Act (公民投票法) and other laws be amended first as a show of sincerity. Indeed, to show that talk about constitutional reform is not just empty talk, politicians should first take concrete action as a sign of their sincerity.
Setting a timetable for reform is the first requirement for demonstrating such sincerity. Without a timetable, reform often never happens.
The second requirement is that all party leaders sit down and talk to each other. Criticizing each other and avoiding meetings are not ways of showing sincerity. Once the ruling and opposition parties have reconciled, they should invite the participation of civic organizations.
Third, constitutional reform is indeed very important, but amending the barely adequate Referendum Act and recalling legislation is another way of displaying sincerity.
In addition, before any reforms take place, the KMT should follow up on its landslide loss in the Nov. 29 elections by returning its ill-gotten assets to the state. That would be a concrete way for the KMT to display its sincerity to the public.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Perry Svensson
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