Semi-presidential system fits nation

By Tsai Jung-hsiang 蔡榮祥  / 

Fri, Apr 17, 2015 - Page 8

Recent developments offer a glimpse of hope about revising the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution. New Taipei City Mayor and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) appears to favor a parliamentary system of government — an idea supported by many KMT lawmakers and even by some members of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Support for a parliamentary government is based on comparative constitutional studies showing that countries with a Cabinet system are more stable than those with a presidential system. However, this viewpoint fails to compare a parliamentary system with a semi-presidential system, and neglects the political context of specific countries.

A semi-presidential system is better suited to how the ROC Constitution operates than a parliamentary system for the following reasons.

First, a semi-presidential system precludes the instability of multiparty Cabinet systems. Some constitutional reformists have proposed lowering the electoral threshold to 3 percent. If that is coupled with a parliamentary system, it will very likely lead to the creation of a multiparty Cabinet that can better reflect the views of minorities. However, it could also lead to instability should some parties decide to withdraw from a coalition Cabinet or if a party were to create mistrust within the coalition to serve its own election prospects.

When parties withdraw from a coalition, the Cabinet loses the legislative majority and new legislative elections have to be held. The French Third and Fourth Republics are classic examples of the instability of a multiparty Cabinet system. If the semi-presidential system is wedded with a multiparty system, even if the Cabinet turnover is high, stability would not be affected because the president’s tenure is fixed.

The survival of a multiparty Cabinet in a parliamentary system is an all or nothing scenario, while in a semi-presidential system, a change of government would not necessarily lead to a regime crisis because there would be a president in place. The president can also serve as the organ to counterbalance the legislative majority by exercising the presidential right to veto bills that are passed by the legislature, but are difficult to implement. The last counterbalance to the legislative majority is the Council of Grand Justices.

Second, in a semi-presidential system, power is shared between the president and the premier, primarily because the premier is the de facto leader of the legislative majority and controls a majority of the legislative seats. A premier with the ambition to run for president will need to perform better. If their policies fail and they lose support from a majority of the public, they could be replaced by other members of parliament, perhaps even from the opposition. This could solve the current problem of the premier essentially serving as the president’s chief of staff, as well as create a balance between powers and obligations. With real power, the premier would share executive power with the president and take responsibility for policy successes and failures, thus allowing the president to exercise power in foreign affairs and national defense.

Third, a semi-presidential system works better with Taiwan’s system of direct presidential elections. With the introduction of direct presidential elections, it has become very difficult to treat the president as a ceremonial figurehead unless the elected president is unwilling to exercise presidential power.

Indeed, in some European countries with a semi-presidential system and directly elected presidents, such as Iceland, Ireland and Austria, the president, while enjoying high popularity, does not have the constitutional right to exercise practical power. However, there are also some European countries, such as France, Poland and Portugal, which have a semi-presidential system where the president is granted rights to exercise important powers.

The parliamentary system runs counter to the political reality in Taiwan. As comparative constitutional engineering academic Robert Elgie has said, the choice of constitution should consider the specific political context of the country. We cannot just emulate or transplant wholesale another constitution because it is said to be better.

Of course, a semi-presidential system has practical problems, such as conflicts between a president and a premier as well as cohabitation, in which the president and the legislative majority are from different parties.

However, from the perspective of facilitating constitutional reform, a semi-presidential system allows supporters of parliamentary government to feel that it is adopting a parliamentary system, while advocates of presidential government can continue to safeguard the role of the president.

A semi-presidential system can be designed to counterbalance the president, for example by granting the premier real power. In contrast, a parliamentary system is relatively weak in counterbalancing the premier, who possesses both executive and legislative powers.

Tsai Jung-hsiang is a political science professor at National Chung Cheng University.

Translated by Ethan Zhan