Changing dates mere manipulation

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水  / 

Wed, Apr 27, 2011 - Page 8

Public opinion surveys indeed show that there is greater support for combining next year’s presidential and legislative elections than there is opposition to the idea. Many constitutional experts, however, oppose such a change. So should our system of government be decided by scholarly concerns for the spirit of the Constitution, or by public opinion mobilized by political parties?

We encountered the same situation once before, in 2004. At that time, academics in the legal and political fields were overwhelmingly opposed to halving the number of legislators, but public opinion mobilized by political parties moved toward supporting the change. The political parties then turned around and used public opinion as their reason for pushing through a constitutional amendment. This kind of decisionmaking, where political parties run the country through populism incited by themselves, is a source of repeated chaos.

It is a fact that elections are too frequent in Taiwan. Some of them should be combined, while others should not.

In the case of local elections, Taiwan used to have a smattering of special municipality elections, county elections, city elections, township elections and borough elections. These elections were all spread over different dates because at the time, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was governed by political concerns alone and did not pay much attention to issues such as a reasonable and well-planned system.

When the KMT lost Taipei City to the independent Henry Kao (高玉樹) twice in the 1960s, the party “elevated” Taipei to the status of special municipality and turned the mayorship into an appointed position, disregarding the fact that this would create a huge gap between city and countryside. When elections were reintroduced during the democratization process in the 1990s, the election date was not synchronized with the county elections.

It made sense to combine local elections, which are now held on fewer occasions. However, following the spirit of the Constitution, the legislative and presidential elections should not be combined.

The Constitution stipulates that the president must be inaugurated on May 20 and that the legislative session should begin in February. So long as the legislature is not dissolved and re-elected, thus setting a new precedent, the legislature convenes on Feb. 1. However, there are more than three months between the two dates, which means that if the two elections are combined, we will have a lame duck government for four months. However, Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairwoman Chang Po-ya (張博雅) says that it doesn’t matter if this period is one, two or four months.

Such absurd statements show a total unawareness that times have changed.

The Republic of China Constitution was written more than 60 years ago. At that time, it covered China, a large, slow-moving agricultural society. It stipulates that the presidential election must be held 90 days before the end of the current term and that if both the president and the vice president are absent, the premier can only act in their place for three months. However, today we have passed into the postindustrial world and the current trend is to shrink the “lame duck” period as much as possible.

The time lapse between a parliamentary election and the inauguration of the new leader is but a week in most parliamentary democracies.

Local elections were combined in 2006 and last year, but without adjusting the terms. The period between election and inauguration of township mayors was extended by three months, leading to a series of problems. Just imagine what would happen in a presidential election.

The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) says a period with a caretaker government differs from a period with a lame duck government.

The problem is that the KMT is preparing legislation that will regulate the execution of power during the caretaker period. Judging from this law, the government can continue to run routine business during the caretaker period, but must stop if a major event occurs. Doesn’t this make it obvious that according to the spirit of the law, the government can take care of small matters, but in big matters, it becomes a lame duck government?

The reasons they have used to explain why extending the period with a lame duck government is of no great concern are preposterous. Because the current political and economic situation, both domestically and internationally, is fluid and often changes overnight, and because major disasters unfortunately do occur, and the outgoing president cannot take responsive measures while the incoming president still cannot exercise the powers of his or her office, the country cannot respond to any of these changes, be they good or bad. Every opportunity will be lost and nothing can be done about public suffering or chaos.

The Ma administration says that combining the presidential and legislative elections could save up to NT$470 million (US$16.3 million). Even if the figure were bigger than that, it would only amount to the annual budget of a small township administration.

In the end, there is one single reason why the government is insisting on combining these elections: They know that their approval ratings are too low. They are pinning their hopes on combining these elections to be able to use the legislative elections to mobilize the KMT’s grassroots support in order to save the presidential election, and this isn’t right.

This is not the first time I have criticized the government from a constitutional perspective. In the 2004 legislative elections and the 2005 county commissioner and mayoral elections, I used the spirit of the Constitution as my point of departure for criticizing the Democratic Progressive Party administration for recklessly changing the election date to improve their election prospects.

Who would have expected that once former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) had stepped down, the Ma administration’s election date manipulations would turn out to be 10 times worse than even that of the Chen government. It is sickening.

Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.