Behind the political turmoil following President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) allegations that Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s (王金平) had been involved in improper lobbying, there is more cause for concern: A skewed presidential system, heavy on power, light on responsibility and indifferent to the public’s right to know.
First, the president has great power. He can hire and fire the premier — the person who holds the greatest administrative power in the country — as he sees fit, without having to seek the consent of the legislature.
However, the appointment of the heads and members of the Judicial Yuan, the Examination Yuan and the Control Yuan — which have only the tiniest administrative authority and access to scant resources — all have to be approved by the legislature. This turns on its head the democratic principle that the possession and execution of power is founded on the consent of the citizenry.
With this skewed system, the president is able, without having to attend public legislative hearings or seek the legislature’s consent, to decide the fates of many administrative heads, through his influence over the premier, dictating the appointment and dismissal of ministers, ambassadors and presidents of state-owned companies. He actually has more power than a president in the US.
Second, there is a lack accountability or responsibility. Once the president wins the election, he can do whatever he pleases for four years, without having to pay the slightest regard to public opinion. Presidents have virtually no need to fear the consequences of their actions within the constitutional system.
For a president to be recalled, a proposal has to be backed by a quarter of the legislators. It can be set in motion with a ballot valid only if two-thirds of the legislators vote in favor of the recall. It is finally decided with a public referendum. As long as the president has 38 legislators in his pocket, recall proceedings will not work.
For a president to be impeached, there needs to be a motion backed by more than half the legislature — valid only if two-thirds vote in favor of the impeachment — before a formal request can be made to the Judicial Yuan to submit the proposal to the Council of Grand Justices for review. Such a high threshold does not exist in other democracies. The president has plenty of opportunities to exert his influence to make sure things go his way.
Finally, the president can ignore public opinion. According to Article 4, clause 3 of the Additional Articles of the Republic of China Constitution, “When the Legislative Yuan convenes each year, it may hear a report on the state of the nation by the president.”
This stipulation refers to one of the official obligations of the legislature, but it does not say that it is a duty the president has to fulfill. Because of this, the president — who possesses and executes the highest national authority — has never delivered a report on the state of the nation to the legislature, the elected representatives of the citizenry.
This is at odds with the democratic principle expressed in Article 15 of the Declaration of of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which states that: “Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.”
Taiwan has already been through the corruption of the government under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and witnessed the fall from grace of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
If this skewed system cannot be righted, the chaos and incompetence will continue from of Ma and those who come after him.
Lin Terng-yaw is a retired professor of law who taught at Tunghai University.
Translated by Paul Cooper