Until recently, neither politicians nor the public had seriously discussed constitutional changes for a long time. That was understandable for two reasons: First, most people have not felt that the need for constitutional change — or even the Constitution itself — is relevant to their daily life. Second, the threshold for amending the Constitution is so high that politicians, especially Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members, who were never fond of the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution, tired of talking about it.
Constitutional amendments must be initiated by more than one-quarter of all legislators and passed by at least three-quarters of those present at a meeting attended by at least three-quarters of the Legislative Yuan. They must then be put to a referendum and will be sanctioned if the number of valid votes in favor exceeds half of the total electorate.
Given this high bar, the constitutional moment — defined by Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman as changes made to a constitution due to high levels of public awareness of constitutional significance — has been the last thing on the mind of the opposition.
However, a series of recent controversies appear to be changing that mentality among Taiwanese by raising their awareness of constitutional significance. Politicians also sense an impending national crisis that can be traced either to the Constitution itself or President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) failure to live up to his pledge that his administration would “abide by the Constitution at all times.”
The death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) made the public realize that people’s right to live was being carelessly handled by the military. The forced demolition of four houses in Dapu Borough (大埔), in Miaoli County’s Jhunan Township (竹南) showed how the protection of property rights enshrined in the Constitution was completely ignored by the central and local governments. This violation of propery rights has occurred — or is occurring — across the country in places such as Greater Tainan and Hualien and Taitung counties, where local governments have tried to expropriate land to make way for development projects in the name of the public good.
On the political front, the public has also begun to question why the Control Yuan finds it so difficult to uphold its duties as government watchdog and monitor government officials after it failed to impeach Keelung Mayor Chang Tong-rong (張通榮). Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien has even said that it “might as well be shut down.”
The ensuing chaos prompted DPP and Taiwan Solidarity Union lawmakers to come up with a proposal to change the five branches of government under the Constitution to a Western-style three-power system by abolishing the Control and Examination yuans.
Having lost patience with political deadlocks, a citizens’ alliance is also trying to achieve what has long been considered impossible by recalling lawmakers it believes are incompetent and only align themselves with Ma and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
These developments prompt the question: Has the “constitutional moment” arrived in Taiwan?
The last time the moment arrived, in the early 1990s, Taiwanese seized that opportunity, with public support, strong pressure from advocates and students and the political will of then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) forging a grand constitutional amendment movement.
The public and the opposition parties have to believe that they can make the same thing happen again, if their effort to facilitate such change is to be deemed legitimate.
However, the ball is — as always — in the KMT’s court. KMT members, including Ma and lawmakers, can save the country from descending into chaos and save themselves from continued dismal approval ratings and public outrage by pushing through a comprehensive constitutional deliberation — unless they remain blind to the looming national crisis.