Let's strengthen the Cabinet system

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水  / 

Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 8

Regardless of whether the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wants to keep President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in place to avoid succession by Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) or whether it wants to dump him by handing administrative and personnel affairs to the party's Central Standing Committee, the party has become the target of severe criticism.

The DPP finds itself in a dilemma, and some even say that dividing power between the government and the party is tantamount to a return to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) era when that party led the government.

If Taiwan were to adopt a Cabinet system, all these problems would be solved in one fell swoop. Under such a system, the premier's party would immediately name a successor once the premier loses his ability to lead.

Take the recent example involving British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Pressure from within his party forced him to promise an early resignation next year instead of leading the party for the remainder of his term. His successor will be Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown,considered the party's strongest and most suitable candidate.

Today, the DPP opposes Lu's succession for several reasons. She has fallen short of party expectations and is not strong enough, so many doubt that she would be capable of running the government were she to replace Chen. Her behavior is also utterly unpredictable.

During her short time as acting chairwoman of the party, she managed to turn it upside-down. Furthermore, at a time when party members were wearing forlorn expressions over the corruption scandals surrounding the first family, she seemed to be the only one who actively attended events with a happy face.

Lu is not strong enough to rule. She was chosen as Chen's running mate simply because it was thought she would complement Chen, and his campaign promoted "rule by both sexes." She was not chosen on the assumption that Chen would be unable to finish his term.

If the ticket featuring then KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) won the 2004 presidential election, and Lien had turned out to be a disastrous president, the KMT would have had to hand power to the PFP if Lien resigned. Under these circumstances, the KMT's determination to consolidate its leadership would probably have been stronger than that of the DPP.

The typical view is that having a party lead the government is wrong, that this is exactly what happens in a presidential system and not in a Cabinet system.

But in the latter, the Cabinet must have the support of the legislative majority. The majority is maintained by the members of the legislature, who follow party discipline. The system would be unable to operate if the government were not led by the party. For example, during the French cohabitation between right and left, the prime minister's party also led the government.

As for a presidential system, the executive is headed by the president, who is virtually unconnected to his party. The legislature, however, maintains a strict separation of powers, and it is almost impossible for the president to rely on party discipline to control legislators from his party. Therefore, it is impossible to have the party lead the government.

However, Taiwan's situation is complex. On the one hand, the government is obviously led by the president, but there is also a premier stuck between the president and his ministers, which obstructs smooth execution of leadership.

Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen have all used tough disciplinary methods to bring members of the legislature into line. Chen also used his authority within the DPP to lead the legislature before he delegated most of his powers to the premier to concentrate on his presidential duties. Though not serving as party chairman, he still governed through the party.

At this point it is necessary to further analyze the meaning of "governing through the party." This does not mean "governing through the party chairman," but instead refers to governing through party organizations and enforcing party discipline. For instance, Britain's political parties also have party chairmen, but they are merely the directors of party affairs. The one who leads the government is generally the prime minister.

Can a premier who doesn't have direct popular support govern without doing it through party organizations and enforcing party discipline?

With policymaking and personnel appointments all in the premier's hands and the political agenda being pushed through by the party apparatus, this amounts to having one person running the party, the government and even the legislature. Even though this may all take place while the president is head of state, it remains problematic from a democratic standpoint.

Under the US model, presidential and legislative powers are supposed to be separate and equal, while in Britain, the parliamentary majority makes up the Cabinet, although nominally parliament takes precedence.

In Taiwan, however, the Cabinet takes precedence over the legislature, which is a big problem.

Recent attempts to have the DPP and the government jointly discuss policy are in fact a step toward democracy. However, a lack of corresponding systemwide measures will give rise to a host of problems. The public receives the wrong impression that governing through the party is a mistake and, in the ensuing controversy, believes a move in that direction should be criticized for moving the country backward instead of forward.

Other solutions to the current political deadlock, such as having Chen step down or delegating powers to let party and government jointly discuss policy implementation, are fraught with problems.

A constitutional amendment establishing a Cabinet system would be the best approach in forging long-term stability. A Cabinet system is also what the DPP advocated at the time of its founding.

Lin Cho-shui is a Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

Translated by Eddy Chang and Marc Langer