Parties At Odds On Reforming the ConstitutionEverybody agrees that the constitution needs a reboot, but consensus remains elusive and critics argue that the main parties are focusing on short-term gains rather than comprehensive reform
Although all political parties in Taiwan agree that there is an urgent need for constitutional reform — particularly after the Sunflower Movement last year — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as well as civic groups, remain at odds on the scope of and mechanisms for such reforms.
Some prefer all-out constitutional reform. That goal is not achievable, however, as the two main parties have promised that reform will not be related to changing the name of the country, national symbols and all the sensitive issues that risk creating tensions between Taiwan, China, and the U.S.
The secretary-generals of both parties met on March 19 at the KMT headquarters for exploratory talks but left the meeting having reached little consensus. While both parties recognized the importance of constitutional reform and agreed that this should be accomplished by July so that the amendment could be put to a referendum held simultaneously with the presidential election in January next year, they were divided on whether a national affairs conference focused on constitutional reform should be convened by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and whether representatives of civic groups should be included.
In the end, the 39-member Constitutional Amendment Committee — created in late March at the Legislative Yuan, with 22 KMT lawmakers, 14 DPP lawmakers and two lawmakers from other parties — as the only platform for discussion. Unsurprisingly, this has infuriated civic groups. A total of 10 public hearings are scheduled, the first one on April 9, before lawmakers deliberate reform in committee.
The DPP hammered out the final version of its proposed amendments to the constitution on March 30, calling for two-stage reform that includes abolishing the Control Yuan and the Examination Yuan, lowering the legal voting age to 18 and the threshold for Constitutional amendment referenda, as well as improving legislative representation by redrawing the constituency map or switching from the current parallel voting system to a Mixed-Member Proportional representation system.
Trying to reassure the civic groups, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said after the meeting that her party maintained that reform should be based on long-term national interests rather than short-term political benefits and should therefore not be conducted hastily. She added that input for civic groups should be included. Tsai pledged that the second-stage of reform and a civic constitutional affairs conference would be held if the DPP returned to power next year.
DPP plans for first-stage reform
- Lower the legal voting age to 18 and minimum age for elected officials to 20;
- Abolish the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan;
- Include human rights clauses in the Constitution;
- Lower the threshold for constitutional amendment referenda;
- Improve legislative representation by redrawing the constituency map or switching from the current parallel voting system to a Mixed-Member Proportional representation system.
As to the much-debated government system, the DPP argues that a parliamentary system is not an option for now since most people still prefer the idea of electing a president directly.
The KMT legislative caucus on March 27 announced its draft proposal for constitutional amendments, which advocates adopting several principles that are only seen in a parliamentary system and giving the legislature the power to vote on the president’s appointment of the premier.
In its proposal, the KMT agrees that the legal voting age should be lowered to 18 but insists that the current 113-member legislature is ideal and should not be expanded. The KMT also opposes abolishing the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan, but agrees that personnel at both Yuans should be trimmed.
The most important consensus reached in the caucus meeting was related to the legislature’s power to vote on the president’s appointment of the premier, which the KMT said would prevent a minority premier and political instability, citing the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration between 2000 and 2008.
Legislative powers are an integral part of the KMT’s constitutional reform plan. Observers believe that the KMT has made such powers its top of its priority because the party believes it can maintain its majority in the legislature after the elections next year.
The KMT also advocates for a rather unusual constitutional mechanism, which would make lawmakers eligible to serve as Cabinet ministers, something which usually only occurs in a parliamentary system (the current system in Taiwan is semi-presidential).
Questions have therefore arisen regarding the KMT’s position on the government system. While KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) has publicly advocated for adopting a parliamentary system (analysts say this hints at the KMT’s belief that it might lose the presidency but keep its majority in the legislature) the party has yet to finalize its position on switching to a parliamentary system.
The party’s seemingly inconsistent stance is further complicated by differences between Chu and Ma, the latter opposing almost every item in the KMT proposal — lowering the voting age, streamlining the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan, and lowering the threshold for parties’ at-large seats. Chu insists that the KMT version is “progressive.”
Summing up the KMT proposal, Chu said the draft highlights a political system that adheres to the spirit of a parliamentary system by increasing political participation and streamlining the government.
Both parties’ proposals have been closely watched by academics, civic organizations, and party members. Some of them have been unsparing in their criticism — even of their own parties.
Former DPP lawmaker Lin Cho-shui (林濁水), a staunch supporter of adopting a parliamentary system, says that both parties have approached reform based on short-term political considerations. Lin supports a quasi-parliamentary system in which the president is still directly elected and where the legislature has the power to vote on the president’s choice of premier. He also maintains that a president should not serve concurrently as party chairman.
National Taiwan University law professor Yen Chueh-an (顏厥安) has urged the DPP to clearly state which system it prefers rather than state which ones it rejects, adding that the KMT’s political calculations behind its support for allowing the legislature to vote on the appointment of the premier was “clear” and “a shame.”
Most people who favor a parliamentary system seem to do so over fears of a “super president” who abuses his mandate and powers. According to them, both Ma and Chen fall in that category. Oddly enough, most people also seem reluctant to admit that they still want to be able to directly elect their president.
Hsu Yu-wei (許有為), a doctoral candidate in constitutional law at Université Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne in France, wrote in a column that it would be better for Taiwan to adopt the complete and comprehensive mechanism of a semi-presidential system, which is not what the constitutional amendments of 1997 yielded. Hsu added that giving the legislature the power to veto the president’s appointment of a premier would constitute a misinterpretation of the spirit of the semi-presidential system and could create political instability and a constitutional disaster.
Chris Wang is a staff member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation and a former journalist with the Taipei Times and the Central News Agency.