The road to a better democracy

By Joseph Wu 吳釗燮  / 

Mon, Apr 21, 2014 - Page 8

The Sunflower movement’s sit-in at the legislature has come to a peaceful end, but one of the most important issues prompting the protesters to occupy the Legislative Yuan is yet to be addressed: Taiwan’s constitutional system does not provide an adequate mechanism to deal with political gridlock.

Since former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) began the democratization process, Taiwan has undergone seven rounds of constitutional revision. However, these efforts did not produce a presidential or a parliamentary system, but rather a mix of both. In the eyes of academics and political scientists, the existing system lacks full operability.

Under the Constitution, the president is directly elected and the commander-in-chief has the power to appoint the premier, the power to chair the National Security Council and can also be the chairman of his or her party. With no effective mechanism to balance the position’s influence, the president is supremely powerful.

The Legislative Yuan, in contrast to the US Congress, lacks the powers needed to provide proper checks-and-balances. In particular, the powers of oversight, investigation and impeachment are in the hands of the Control Yuan, whose members are appointed by the president.

Under the Constitution, the premier is answerable to the Legislative Yuan, which makes the relationship between it and the Executive Yuan similar to a parliamentary system. The legislature can initiate a vote of no-confidence in the premier and if it passes, the premier can request that the president dissolve the legislature and call fresh elections. This is also similar to a parliamentary mechanism for resolving political gridlock.

However, in practice, a vote of no-confidence has very little chance of success because lawmakers do not want to initiate an election and the ruling party is likely to block the attempt by applying party discipline. This may prevent the premier from being toppled by the legislature, but it also perpetuates gridlock.

Moreover, under the Constitution, the premier cannot attach a vote of confidence to a bill that the Executive Yuan deems crucial and the president or the premier cannot dissolve the legislature and call for a fresh election without a vote of no-confidence. Consequently, the methods of resolving political difficulties in typical parliamentary systems are not applicable.

In addition, the public understands the importance of the legislature to democracy, but surveys in the past decade clearly show public disapproval and distrust of the Legislative Yuan. This could have been predicted given the very small size of the legislature, which now has 113 seats. Also, 75 percent of the members are elected by constituents. These members need to look after their constituencies so little time is devoted to in-depth policy deliberation.

There is a consensus in Taiwanese academia that the problem can only be resolved by a reform of the electoral system. Many believe a German system should be emulated, which would substantially increase the number of seats, with overall seats distributed based on proportional representation while half of the seats from single-member district elections would be retained.

Without major constitutional reform, it is likely that political gridlock will reoccur. This will undoubtedly hamper Taiwan’s good governance, economic development and democratic consolidation.

One major demand of the movement is for a national conference on the Constitution. As a political scientist by training and one who has worked within the system, I fully understand the problems associated with the Constitution and support reform into a presidential or parliamentary system. It is all about good governance and democratic consolidation, not sovereignty.

Political scientists frequently define democratic consolidation as the political rules of the game, ie, constitutional rules and norms, being accepted with no or very little challenge. Taiwan is a young democracy and many of its international partners support the nation based on the common values and beliefs of democracy. However, it will become a grave problem for Taiwan’s democratic consolidation if the constitutional rules of the political game are seriously challenged from within the system or from outside.

The Sunflower movement has challenged the rules of the game in the name of safeguarding democracy. The movement’s level of public support provides a significant impetus to an overhaul of the Constitution.

Taiwan wishes to stand tall among the community of democratic nations and contribute to needed democratic development in the region. Hopefully, its friends in the international community will voice their support for efforts to reform, for this will be the path to deepen Taiwan’s budding democracy.

Joseph Wu is the Democratic Progressive Party’s policy director and representative to the US.