Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), a president who has lost all his prestige, has now used his position as chairman of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) at one of its Central Standing Committee meetings to call a provisional legislative session to deal with a controversial amendment to the Local Government Act (地方制度法). The amendment stipulates that incumbent township chiefs and councilors be given jobs as district heads and advisers once the new special municipalities are in place.
Putting aside the political consequences, the constitutional implications of such a move would be quite serious.
Passing the KMT’s amendment during a provisional session would not mean that Ma would have restored his credibility among voters, but it would mean that the president had once again tried to dictate to party legislators, who hold almost 75 percent of the legislature.
If the amendment is not passed, Ma’s personal credibility will take another heavy blow. He will become a permanently crippled president less than two years after storming into office with 60 percent of the vote.
A 1997 constitutional amendment ended the legislature’s right to approve the premier, instead giving the president the right to do so (in the belief that this would expand presidential powers and turn the premier into the chief bureaucrat), seemingly tilting the dual leadership system toward a presidential system of government.
It is common knowledge, however, that the legislature has gained in power because former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), as well as Ma, in practice did not take up the presidential power to return bills to the legislature for reconsideration.
This has created a situation where the president, despite doubling as party chairman, still has problems getting anything done in the legislature — even if his party holds a massive majority.
During the Chen years, the Democratic Progressive Party was unable to gain an absolute legislative majority. The party’s problems in the legislature were simplistically described as the product of opposition protests, and the president’s inability to control the legislature became routine. This helps to explain why Ma said, prior to being elected president, that he would not double as party chairman.
In the naive belief that KMT legislators would support a KMT president, he ignored the fact that electoral reforms would make legislators more vulnerable to voter sentiment. The result now is that less than halfway into his presidential term, and following the rejection of his appointments to both the Control Yuan and the Examination Yuan, Ma broke his election promise and became KMT chairman.
Ma thought that with the party in his hands, he could also control the legislature. In thinking this, he failed to see the constitutional danger in the effective loss of the executive veto.
If the Ma years can one day be said to have made any contribution to Taiwanese democracy, it would be in these terms: The 1997 constitutional amendments, which put more power in the hands of the president, were followed by a tilt in the relationship between the legislature and the Cabinet toward the legislature. This trend has been amplified by the introduction of the single-member-district electoral system.
During the Chen presidency, the trend toward a powerful legislature was misconstrued as a result of pan-blue-camp protests. It is only now that it has become clear that the dual leadership system has reached the end of the road. It is clearly time to consider another constitutional amendment.
Hsu Yung-ming is an assistant professor of political science at Soochow University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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