For the first time since the first direct presidential election was held in Taiwan on March 23, 1996, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) eight years in office will provide a historic lens to look at how the presidential system has worked with the election of a pro-unification president. Indeed, it provides much food for thought. From the perspective of the electorate, the Ma years represent their first experience of being governed by a directly elected president who also happens to be pro-unification.
However, it seems that the electorate has had quite enough of the experience. Other reasons notwithstanding, the system has been found wanting. While on the surface people could say that a given president can only seek re-election once, this also comes with fixed-term guarantees, which is the source of much concern for a great many people.
Taiwanese have had to allow a president, who has been labelled a “bumbler” and someone willing to surrender national sovereignty, to run around like a bull in a China shop for the best part of a decade. In theory, he should have been rendered a lame duck president some time ago, but in fact he has been able to push through on the strength of his party, leaving the entire nation unable to do anything about it.
All that can be done now is to wait for the election next year. Even then there will be a four-month waiting period before a new president is sworn in. The president-elect will be like a prince waiting on the sidelines for his father, the king, clinging on to his last breath, to pass. During that time, the nation will be in a state of limbo.
Especially with the long-standing and intractable stand-off between the pro-unification and pro-independence camps, the public is set to endure a four-month handover period, with a directly elected, pro-unification president remaining legally in control of the nation, with voters unable to use the law to curtail his misuse of constitutional power. Up until the last minute of his term, on the eve of the official handover of presidential power, he will remain the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the highest representative of the nation. What will he do in the intervening period?
In 2005, then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) joined forces with former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to promote the idea of a new constitution. In the political climate of that time, when the nation had yet to experience the governance of a pro-unification president, it was easy to assume that any president would be pro-
independence, and there was near unanimous support for the presidential system and direct presidential elections. Little has changed since then, and the pro-independence camp sees it as only natural that Taiwan should have a presidential system and direct elections.
Given the wounds inflicted by this bumbling bull of a president, at a time when Taiwanese are still anticipating a long handover period in which a pro-unification regime remains in power, and when there are no guarantees that a second pro-unification president will not be elected, people might want to think long and hard about whether the system is right for Taiwan.
For example, the parliamentary Cabinet system does not have fixed-term guarantees: The nation could have a collective decisionmaking model that more accurately reflects the public mood on the unification-
independence issue, instead of concentrating power in one individual, therefore avoiding a situation where the Presidential Office is the source of national turmoil. Surely that is worth thinking about.
Christian Fan Jiang is deputy convener of the Northern Taiwan Society’s legal and political group.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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