Crisis at the Top: Why the Presidency is Failing Us

Little by little, the dual executive system has undergone a transformation that bodes ill for Taiwan’s democracy
J. Michael Cole Caption Caption Caption Caption
Lin Cho-shui

Upon the refusal by Lin I-hsiung (林義雄) for a face-to-face visit during his hunger strike last month, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) left Lin a card, promising a referendum on the future of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant following the completion of safety inspections.

In response, Lin wrote a letter in which he harshly criticized Ma’s ignorance of the constitutional system. “(You) keep making self-righteous comments that lack legal basis,” Lin said. “The brief statement in your greeting card is evidence of your poor understanding of constitutional provisions and highlight serious problems with your legal literacy.”

Lin’s criticism centered on the legitimacy of Ma offering to commit, as president, to a referendum on behalf of the government.

“Even common people know that the Constitution authorizes the president to handle foreign and military affairs only. The ‘Nuke Four’ issue falls under neither of these two categories, and thus should be the responsibility of the premier and the Cabinet, with legislative oversight. The president has no right to directly involve himself in the nuclear controversy. [Your] arbitrary interference in this matter is far from adequate.” Lin added.

According to Lin’s, the solution to the controversy would require a proposal by the premier which would then be approved by the legislature or, alternatively, a legislative resolution to be implemented by the premier. Despite Lin’s views on the role of the president, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) agreed to meet Ma on April 25 in an attempt to defuse the crisis.

During the meeting, Su told Ma that, “As the highest authority in the government, you hold the key to the termination of the ‘Nuke Four’ construction.” Ma countered by saying that under Taiwan’s dual-executive system, he is required to share information and make joint decisions with Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺).

Lin insists that the president can only exercise his power over national defense and foreign affairs. Su asserts that ultimately the president is in control of all state affairs. Ma, on the other hand, claims that he must share his power of decision with the premier. Such lack of consensus among the top political figures of a country on the powers of the president is nothing to be proud of, to put it charitably.

What is even more bizarre is that there is evidence to supporting each of the above arguments.

The stipulation in the Constitution that “the Executive Yuan shall be the highest administrative organ of the state” serves as the foundation of Lin’s argument.

Conversely, Su’s perspective reflects how the political system operates in reality. “Premier Jiang is entitled to neither decision making nor official discussion with the president on affairs of the state. Instead, as Jiang has reiterated, the premier can only provide reports to the president based on his understanding of various issues,” Su said.

Su’s observation is fair. This model did not begin with Ma, as this is how the central government operated under the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) presidencies. In modern democracies, the right to de jure exercise of power is given by voters via direct elections. In the context of Taiwan, the premier is appointed by the president, while the head of state is elected through direct elections. Therefore, it is the president rather than the premier’s privilege to exercise his executive powers, which he exercises on behalf of the citizens who elevated him to the position.

On the other hand, President Ma could have supported his claim by citing the 1997 constitutional amendment in which Taiwan welcomed the “dual executive system.”

It is true that all these arguments are defensible. However, the point is that the significantly diverse definitions of the president’s role warrant concerns over the accountability of the government. Identifying who should be held accountable for certain decisions and who is responsible for the consequences of those decisions is therefore a major challenge.

The attendant lack of accountability within the government has opened the door to manipulation. The president can for example exploit the position that the premier heads the “highest administrative organ of the state” to use him as a scapegoat when government policies go bad. This explains why a president whose approval rating has fallen to less than 10% can remain comfortably in his position until the last day of his four-year term.

The problem with accountability, on the other hand, implies a volatile interplay of power relations and the consequent instability of the system. Despite Ma’s insistence on being in line with semi-presidentialism, his interpretation and implementation of that system has been inconsistent.

Initially after being elected in 2008, Ma echoed his predecessor and pledged to be a “president to all the people,” and vowed to refrain from prioritizing the interests of his party. To separate his administration from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Ma weakened the KMT Central Standing Committee (CSC) by transferring the party’s de facto decision-making powers to the newly established “weekly Zhongshan meeting” (中山會報). Furthermore, Ma introduced policies to reduce the control of local KMT factions over their “turfs.”

Through his mentor Lee Hung-hsi (李鴻禧), a constitutional expert, former president Chen asserted that Taiwan had been practicing presidentialism since the constitutional amendment of 1997. Ma, however, contends that Taiwan is ruled by a premier-president system. Therefore, Ma said that he would lead national defense and foreign affairs, and leave other national affairs entirely to the discretion of then-premier Liu Chao-hsiuan (劉兆玄). Ma furthermore claimed that he would assist the premier with his opinions, though only when necessary.

Ma’s interpretation of the system is similar to Lin’s. However, the problem is that neither the cabinet members nor the premier are elected. Despite his legitimate power to make decisions on national affairs, the premier is hardly in a position to defend the cabinet against outside interventions by the president and lawmakers, as both are representatives of the constituents who elected them.

The odds were never in former premier Liu’s favor. First, Liu had little time to prepare for the global financial and economic crisis that hit in 2008. Subsequently, with the poor response to the disaster caused by Typhoon Morakot in August 2009, the cabinet descended into crisis.

To make things worse, in the areas of cross-strait relations, Liu’s role was marginalized. Then-KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and former chairman Lien Chan (連戰) meanwhile traveled frequently across the Taiwan Strait and dominated the scene.

To resolve the challenges facing his administration, Ma replaced Liu with Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) in 2009. And while he began involving himself in the operations of the cabinet, Ma for the most part respected Wu’s responsibilities. That same year, Ma began to double as KMT chairman, intervening in the legislature through his legislators to ensure his control over cross-strait relations and secure legislative approval for his policies.

Ma’s maneuvering, however, has jeopardized the constitutional framework set forth in the two systems.

Both presidential and semi-presidential systems require the chief executive of the government, namely the president, be chosen by a separate direct popular election from that of the legislature. Under these circumstances, the legislative and executive branch of the government shall function independently from the other, possessing its own powers. In a nutshell, neither system allows the president to control the parliament through his party chairmanship. Conversely, a government ruled by the cabinet would require that the premier lead members of congress from the party that holds a majority in the legislature.

By holding double duty as both president and party chairman, Ma and his predecessor Chen made an already messy government system even more complicated.

In reality, Taiwan only ever enjoyed a slight hint of semi-presidentialism at the time when Wu led the cabinet.

Sean Chen (陳冲) took the reins of the cabinet after Wu was elected vice president in the 2012 presidential election as Ma’s running mate. A technocrat and a political amateur in comparison with Wu, Chen could hardly keep Ma from meddling heavily in cabinet affairs. Ma began to micromanage just about everything with his overly meticulous personality, as if he was a section chief rather than the president.

Ma consequently became completely tied up and barely had any time to rest, which explains why he sometimes dozed off at work. At that time, there was no suggestion of premier-presidentialism. Instead, the government was ruled by Ma’s “section chief-presidentialism.” Nevertheless, Ma insisted that he had made every effort to keep with the spirit of semi-presidentialism.

The significance of the premier somewhat increased after Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) succeeded Chen. Nonetheless, the government has since operated mainly in accordance with the rules of presidentialism. The dominance of the president has resulted in challenges to Jiang’s leadership in the cabinet, prompting him to announce a reshuffle of major ministerial posts. In this episode, even popular members of the cabinet, such as Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) and Environmental Protection Administration Minister Stephen Shen (沈世宏), were unable to keep their jobs.

Lately, the reputation of the president and premier hit rock bottom on account of their catastrophic reaction to a series of social issues. To counter the threat to his regime, Ma announced the long-rumored appointment of Representative to the U.S. King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) to the post of National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general.

In the opinion of many people, it is highly unlikely that King assumed the role only to serve as chief of staff on national defense strategies. Instead, it is widely believed that he will have his finger in every pie, in each and every important area of the Ma administration. Even the Chinese-language United Daily News, a pan-blue newspaper, has questioned his role:

“King Pu-tsung has always played a pivotal role in the Ma government, with no one above him but the president. From time to time, he stresses that he will refrain from exceeding his authority — with his firm belief in the need to confine oneself to only his official role. Nevertheless, King is essentially Ma’s chief strategist, and therefore it is inevitable that whichever position he accepts will eventually become the center of political power. At the end of the day, it is beyond doubt that King will become the most powerful NSC secretary-general as long as Ma remains president.”

“From a president-led ‘mini cabinet’ where top and core cabinet members meet, the NSC will become the de facto cabinet where its secretary-general oversees national affairs,” the UDN continues. “Ultimately, Ma will have to be held accountable for disrupting the constitutional framework.”

It is hard to imagine what the compromised constitutional framework will look like after all this. Finding a name for it will be even more difficult. We could probably call it a “triple executive system” in which the government is led by the president, the NSC secretary-general and the premier. Among other things such a system will likely lead to even less government accountability and exacerbate the current crisis. The administration’s hardline response to the dispute over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) is a good example of the consequences of the accentuated powers of those three positions.

The so-called dual executive system that Ma likes to refer to underwent a series of distortions over the past six years of his presidency. With recent developments, it has now turned into a monstrous system featuring, in practice, three leading state executives.

Of course we could assume that the disruptions in the constitutional framework were merely the result of the president’s trial and error approach to the rectification of an admittedly seriously flawed system. But whatever Ma’s motivations or reasons may be, the lack of accountably that has characterized the Ma administration has only made matters worse. Regardless, there is every reason for Taiwanese to rid themselves of the current system, which has become too corrupted to meet the requirements of a democracy.

Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.

A Chinese-language version of Lin’s piece is available here:

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