The “September strife” shows how the longstanding lack of effective public oversight of politicians has allowed them to gallop out of control like unbridled horses. What may look like a random state of disorder is an inevitable result of the inherent and acquired deficiencies of the nation’s political system.
One major factor contributing to the muddled state of the political setup is a series of constitutional amendments that have given leaders unfettered power.
People were disappointed by a lot of things that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) did, and now they are in despair over President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) incompetence and propensity for political struggles.
The public has been duped by these two presidents over a period of more than a decade. Looking back, it is hard to imagine how Chen, the gallant human rights lawyer, could have ended up claiming that the money he wired into overseas accounts was really a national construction fund. Equally, who would have thought that the well-mannered, handsome, young Ma would later attempt to divert attention from his government’s poor performance by trying to axe Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), supposedly on moral principles, and get egg on his face over alleged illegal wiretapping?
Some people have suggested a return to the Cabinet system, under which the nation’s leaders would have matching powers and responsibilities. A Cabinet system might indeed bring some improvements compared with allowing the president to have power unmatched to his responsibilities and not subject to restraints. However, it would not necessarily be a solution to the current problems.
If Ma, instead of being president, were a prime minister elected by the majority party and his status as party chairman still let him use party discipline to control Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, would that change his habit of acting contrary to public opinion?
Having been duped for more than a decade, Taiwanese should start to face reality. What can be done when representative democracy fails, when the government works hand-in-hand with corporations and when those in power do things that fly in the face of public opinion? Ordinary people must be willing to stand up in the hour of need. Direct democracy can be used to launch recall campaigns against unworthy elected officials. That would make them act more cautiously and pay attention. It is the only way to sort out the political mess.
When the Referendum Act (公投法) was being drawn up, some legislators were worried that it would be a Pandora’s box, so they built a sturdy “birdcage” around it to keep it firmly closed. However, instead of keeping demons from escaping, the “birdcage” has locked up Taiwan’s imagination. As a result, when issues such as nuclear power, repercussions of the cross-strait service trade agreement and local governments’ arbitrary demolition of people’s homes are ignored, the only recourse is to take to the streets and shout slogans, even though those in power turn a deaf ear.
If Taiwanese had the right to referendums, marching around in the blazing sun and driving rain would not be necessary. People would not feel compelled to kill themselves in protest. The time spent on street protests could be better spent on pursuing dreams or spending time with families.
If Switzerland can do it, Taiwan can do it too.
Switzerland is comparable to Taiwan in terms of area, topography and natural resources. It has a long-established system of using referendums to decide important issues. The system was not hard to set up and it operates with no problem at all. Taiwan is a civilized place, so there is no reason why what has worked for Switzerland should not work here.
If people think the kind of democracy that prevails in Switzerland is an attractive idea, then it is time to think about adopting Swiss-style direct democracy.
The protests launched by the Citizen 1985 alliance on Saturday to coincide with Double Ten National Day are worthy of applause. The “birdcage” referendum system should be dismantled so that Swiss-style direct democracy can spread its wings.
Juang Wei-torng is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Economics.
Translated by Julian Clegg