Open Not the Pandora's Box of Political Calculation
China Times Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 12, 2014
Executive Summary: The most direct solution. the most convenient route, is to simply "follow the constitution." Restore the Constitution of the Republic of China to its original form. Restore the legislature’s authority to approve the premier. This may well be the lowest cost, least risky option. Constitutional reform has been seen as "political reform." But experience shows that constitutional reform is often a Pandora's Box. Can we afford to be careless? Can we afford to open it in haste?
Full Text Below:
The nine in one elections ended with a KMT rout. Now "constitutional reform" has become the hot political topic. Advocates of constitutional reform have focused on the cabinet system, the legislative elections, youth suffrage, and cross-strait negotiation oversight. The most critical issue is the distribution of power and the operation of the central government in a cabinet system.
Advocates of the cabinet system can be divided into two categories. The first category is "cabinet system hawks." They have consistently advocated the cabinet system. They feel the cabinet system is more responsive to and reflective of public opinion. They feel that the distribution of power helps avoid zero-sum games. They feel it more closely aligns the executive and legislative powers. They feel it is more applicable to Taiwan society, with its blue vs. green divisions, so-called “ethnic group” frictions, and long-standing disagreements over reunification vs independence. They feel it would promote reconciliation and symbiosis among the political parties and better avoid polarization than the presidential system. These people are concept-based supporters of the cabinet system.
The second category is "cabinet system vultures." Currently, most cabinet system advocates belong in this category. They have no firm beliefs regarding the relative merits of the presidential system vs. the cabinet system. What they advocated yesterday may not be what they advocate today. Their positions change with the political winds. Today, the KMT has gone down in defeat. Ma Ying-jeou has become the target of public criticism. Cabinet system vultures are demanding that Ma step down to take responsibility. They are also pushing for a constitutional amendment to implement a cabinet system. They want to reduct the president to a figure head. This has became the most extreme expression of "anti-Ma" sentiment. Those who fall into this category change with the wind. They perceive personal advantages in adopting a cabinet system. They are realpolitik-based supporters of the cabinet system.
If we look back at the history of constitutional reform on Taiwan, we see that most advocates of constitutional reform have been opportunists for whom personal and partisan interests trump national stability. Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian amended the constitution seven times. Their motives were almost always personal or partisan advantage for those in power, usually to consolidate power or squash dissent. Many people have criticized the existing constitutional system, in which the president wields power but bears no responsibility. But this system was the crowning achievement of Lee Teng-hui’s constitutional reforms.
The ROC Constitution originally stipulated that "Before the president may issue an executive order, it must be countersigned by the Executive Yuan or the Premier and the heads of the relevant ministries." Also, “Presidential nominees for Premier must be approved by the Legislative Yuan.” These were clearly cabinet system oriented provisions. These provisions date back many years, to when Chang Chun-mai and others were promoting Chinese democracy in an attempt to limit Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial powers.
Lee Teng-hui’s constitutional reforms changed the central government system into something neither fish nor fowl. It destroyed the cabinet system, but failed to replicate either an American-style presidential system or the French-style dual leadership system. The President could now appoint the Premier without Legislative Yuan consent. The President was no longer subject to legislative oversight. The Premier was reduced to the president’s chief of staff. Checks and balances, the most important feature of democracy, virtually disappeared. This is the root cause of the chaos in Taiwan's current system.
During the latter days of Chen Shui-bian's reign, corruption scandals erupted one after another. Cross-Strait crises followed wave after wave. Public support for the DPP plummeted. KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou stood a good chance of winning the presidential election. Advocacy of the cabinet system resurfaced. Those who once advocated a presidential system because it would "strengthen the national will" and "confront the Chinese mainland," suddenly became overnight converts to the cabinet system. Why? Because "Taiwan's democracy has already been consolidated," and "A cabinet system would prevent the president from being bought out by the CCP." Politicians who relentlessly incited blue vs. green confrontation and “ethnic group” frictions, suddenly expressed vigorous support for the cabinet system, because it "promoted ethnic reconciliation." This wave of cabinet system initiatives died stillborn. But the political calculations behind them were all too clear.
The history of constitutional reform is a painful one. The memories are still fresh. Should we amend the constitution? If so, how? Constitutional reform must no longer be motivated by personal or partisan political calculations. They must no longer be the consequence of myopic political considerations. Opposition to Ma is hardly a valid reason to amend the constitution or adopt a cabinet system. Nor is the desire to attain high office or effect a change in the ruling party a valid reason to advocate a presidential system. Central government institutions and constitutional issues must take into consideration three factors. One. Long-term national stability. Two. The pros and cons of the current system. Three. Taiwan's political character and political culture.
If after careful consideration, a cabinet system turns out to be difficult to implement, it should cease being the goal of current political reform. The cabinet system is essentially "parliamentary democracy." The legislature is the heart of the nation’s political institutions. But as it happens the legislature is the branch of government most in need of reform. It is the object of most public criticism and the cause of most people’s suffering. After the 1992 legislative election, a number of capable legislators remained. But local faction leaders and representatives of monied interests came to dominate the legislature. The implementation of the single-member district system, localized and factionalized lawmakers, turning them into family enterprises. These “low information” legislators emphasized local business and ignored national affairs. They lack the qualifications necessary to become cabinet members and form ruling party cabinets. Given Taiwan's political character and political culture, a cabinet system would be truly difficult to implement at this time.
Consider the matter of national stability. Western nations’ experience with the cabinet system, reveal problems with ruling party changes, political instability, and the proliferation of splinter parties. Blue vs. green confrontation has left Taiwan battered. It cannot afford to be subjected to such turmoil again.
The president “wields power but bears no responsibility.” The premier "bears responsibilities but wields no power." Presidential power is too concentrated. The cabinet system is not necessarily the most effective or direct solution. The most direct solution. the most convenient route, is to simply "follow the constitution." Restore the Constitution of the Republic of China to its original form. Restore the legislature’s authority to approve the premier. This may well be the lowest cost, least risky option.
Constitutional reform has been seen as "political reform." But experience shows that constitutional reform is often a Pandora's Box. Can we afford to be careless? Can we afford to open it in haste?