US experts look favorably on constitutional package

By Charles Snyder  /  STAFF REPORTER , IN WASHINGTON

Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 4

Several US Taiwan experts gave a thumbs up to the constitutional package approved by the Legislative Yuan this week, saying it will lead to a more moderate, responsible legislature and a better overall quality of lawmaker in the future.

They also felt that the legislature's actions could blunt any momentum toward radical constitutional change in the future, and said they doubted China would react negatively to the changes that will result from this week's overwhelming vote in favor of the reforms.

"It's a welcome and much needed reform," said John Tkacik, a long-time Taiwan specialist at the conservative Washington-based think tank, the Heritage Foundation.

"All the things [in the package] are positive things that are needed," said former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Nat Bellocchi.

There was no surprise that the reform packaged was approved, given the bipartisan support from the pan-blue and pan-green camps, although Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, quipped, "it's surprising because it is very rare that politicians vote themselves out of a job," a reference to the decision to reduce the Legislative Yuan's size from 225 to 113 seats in 2008.

Tkacik stressed the package's moderating influence. With the current multi-seat districts and large size of the legislature, "an awful lot of extremists and unsavory people are elected to public office," he said. The new winner-takes-all system will be "a very moderating force on the politicians and the electorate," he said.

Rigger agreed. Under the new system, the parties "have to be responsible for the way they vote in the legislature. This was something where they felt the pressure so intensely that they had to go ahead and do it," she said.

Individual legislators "had to be made to toe the line," which the reforms will accomplish, she added.

China is not expected to react strongly, the experts contacted by the Taipei Times all felt.

"It's none of their business," said Bellocchi. "It shouldn't have any impact on China-Taiwan relations. It's just a local government doing what they want to do," he said. He drew a parallel with the elimination by Taipei of the Taiwan Provincial Government in the late 1990s, which China largely ignored.

Rigger called the changes envisioned in the constitutional package as "technical changes. I don't see these changes in any way changing Taiwan's relations with the mainland," she said.

If the at-large seats were eliminated, China's reaction would be different, she feels. "Those seats were meant to represent the people of China, writ large," she said. So, their elimination might have had symbolic meaning for Beijing, she said.

"I personally don't think China cares one way or the other," said Tkacik, who agrees that China will see this as a local matter, saying Taipei "can do whatever they want."

Turning to the referendum, Tkacik says that the Taiwan Solidarity Union's proposal to enact a civil referendum law allowing any group of citizens to collect signatures and put a referendum on the ballot "would have set the Chinese off." But the referendum law that passed, which requires a super-majority in the Legislative Yuan to propose a referendum, "is anodyne," Tkacik said.

For Rigger, the package "should come as a relief for people in Washington and Beijing who have been worrying about this constitutional reform ... this takes some of the wind out of the sails of the constitutional reform movement because rationalizing the legislature was a very popular reason to have constitutional reform. So I don't think it's going to be that easy to get up a head of steam for additional constitutions changes one this one is made," she said.

She said the current package "is not as problematic as it could have been," calling it "much more modest" than President Chen Shui-bian was talking about only a year ago.

Nevertheless, Bellocchi cautioned that Taipei "still has a long way to go" before the reforms are implemented. "There is a lot of work to do yet," he said.

It was not clear which party will stand to benefit or lose in the end from the approved package. "It's possible that the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) will not do as well" under the new rules, Tkacik said. However, he noted that given the current Legislative Yuan's size, the DPP "found it very difficult to find qualified candidates" to fill the seats.

If the package was proposed by the DPP and passed with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) support, "I would have been surprised," he said

But, since it was proposed by the pan-blue camp, "I have to go back and look at it again. It doesn't make sense that the KMT-PFP would benefit much. Which tells me it is possible the DPP sees some loophole that isn't apparent to the naked eye."

He drew an analogy with last year's referendum law, in which Chen recognized Article 17 as a loophole to call himself for an election-day referendum, despite pan-blue efforts to prevent him from doing so.