Tag Archives: President Tsai Ing-wen

Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part II: Progress and Possibility in Taiwan

Talks of constitutional reforms are sweeping across the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Constitutions capture the principles – some say, the most sacred principles – around which institutions, legislation, rules, and processes of a country are built.[1] Constitutional reforms, then, are generally significant and painstaking undertakings, often requiring supermajorities in the legislature or the electorate or both to ratify. And, this may be rightfully so: if they are to amend or revise principles that underpin the political, economic, and social structures of a country, the process should not be based on changeable and changing attitudes. Given the significance, the concomitant grip of constitutional reforms across several of the East Asian with a president as head or co-head of government is interesting, if not curious. What level of public support is there for these reforms? And, how likely are these reforms to pass?

In a previous instalment, I discussed the level of public support in the Philippines for constitutional reform.[2] In this article, I examine the level of public support for reforms in Taiwan. Article 12 of the Additional Articles of the Constitution, i.e., the amendments to the Constitution, stipulates that amendments may be initiated by one-fourth of the total members of the legislature, currently set at 113 seats by Article 4 of the constitutional amendments. A quorum of three-fourths of the legislature is required, and revisions are passed if at least three-fourths of all present approve the revisions. The amendments must be ratified by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters at a referendum held in six months from the public announcement of the revisions.

There is significant domestic and international interest in the constitutional reforms proposed and considered in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen swept into office on January 16, 2017, with an absolute majority of 56.1% of the 66.3 percent turnout; her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also achieved a first with an absolute majority in the legislature. As the first woman elected to the presidency of Taiwan with majority legislative support of a party that has variously been in favour of independence from China, there is considerable interest in how the president and her government would navigate the political path between independence and the “one China” consensus. Constitutional revisions provide important signals.

Domestically, calls for constitutional reforms follow from efforts to improve governance or representation. Thus, at the most recent 2017 DPP national congress, President Tsai noted in her address as chair of the party on the need to contemplate constitutional revisions to heed public demands for a “more efficient government.” Internationally, focus on the constitutional reforms in Taiwan takes into account that such revisions may pave a path for the nation to declaring independence from China. In particular, the current Constitution defines the Republic of China according to “existing national boundaries” with a “free area” and a “mainland area.” A constitutional revision that changes the existing definitions of territory, then, would be considered an assertion of independence.

What amendments have been proposed? In Taiwan, talks of constitutional reform turned concrete when 41 legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sent a proposal on September 27, 2017, for amendments that include the following:

The proposal follows President Tsai’s address to the DPP’s national congress in September 2017. However, the President herself is considered to be steadfast on maintaining the status quo. And, although the 41 DPP legislators exceed the minimum of 29 needed to initiate a constitutional revision, it does not capture uniform support for the revisions within the party: although a core bloc favours independence, moderates in the DPP support the status quo.
Meanwhile, the legislature made short shrift of the proposal, with the speaker rejecting the motion on October 5, 2017, following objections from the People First Party caucus. The Kuomintang separately reiterated its opposition to any revisions that would change the nation’s territory. Indeed, President Tsai asserted that constitutional revisions must come from the people, a “bottom-up” effort and not one initiated by the DPP without public participation. For the moment, then, constitutional reforms have returned to the backburner.


[1] Strauss, David. 2010. The Living Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] Yap, O. Fiona. 2017. “Constitutional Reforms in East Asia, Part I: Progress and Possibility in the Philippines.” https://presidential-power.com/?p=7050 <accessed November 8, 2017>

Taiwan – Softly, Softly, The President Navigates DPP and Cross-Strait Relations

Presidents who are not ceremonial executives generally come under scrutiny following the first 100-day honeymoon after inauguration, when the policy horizon is no longer paved with unencumbered goodwill from the electorate, legislator, or international community. President Tsai Ing-wen is no exception. Indeed, as the executive with majority party support of the erstwhile opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the legislature, the first woman elected to the presidency in Taiwan is likely to be closely watched to see if she is able to implement her policy agenda. That such success evaded the former president elected from the DPP, President Chen Shui-bian, whose agenda was stonewalled by the Pan-Blue majority in the legislature, likely compounds interest and attention on President Tsai. Yet, having a legislative-majority support comes with challenges: in particular, China is keeping close watch on if, when, or how the executive and legislature in Taiwan may adopt policies that veer away from the “one China” 1992 consensus. There is, then, much to appreciate in President Tsai’s ability to maintain her steadfastness that balances the demands of some of the core constituencies of the DPP on the one hand, and the demands and pressures of China on the other.

The DPP, like most parties, comprises factions, and a core bloc in the party favours independence. President Tsai’s previous run as presidential candidate for the DPP in 2012 drew on this core, and she lost out to former President Ma Jing-yeou in that race. The second time around in the 2016 elections, President Tsai was careful to apply the lessons learned: she has been steadfast in maintaining a cautiously-worded stance regarding relations with China that acknowledges the importance of the 1992 meeting that gave rise to the “one China” consensus but without explicitly recognising the one China principle.

The moderates in her party support the delicate stance: in the July 2016 party congress, a motion was made to remove the objective of Taiwan independence contained in Article 1 of the party’s charter. The new resolution, if passed, will change Article 1 to read: “. . . it is the party’s objective to establish cross-strait status quo. . .” However, at the same congress, the pro-independence faction also moved to change the country’s official title from the Republic of China to Taiwan, with the reminder that the DPP has legislative majority and control of the executive to effect changes. The second motion was also sent up to the DPP Central Executive Committee for review.

Possibilities such as the second motion are concerning to China, and China’s response has been to tighten the diplomatic screws while calling out President Tsai’s failure to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. There are concerns that China may tighten the economic screws, which will hurt Taiwan’s sluggish economy. As an indication, tourists from China have fallen by 30 percent since President Tsai’s inauguration, and that has made an impact on the tourist industry in Taiwan, as protestors highlight.

It is clear that this is no easy path to trudge: Taiwan’s unique standing in the international community is bound in its relations with China, so that cross-strait relations reverberate onto domestic agenda and the government’s policy-effectiveness. China has been very clear on what it needs to see from President Tsai, in order to maintain ongoing political peace and economic stability. Meanwhile, the electorate is beating the drums for a quick economic turnround, but is also resistant to painful reforms that are likely to be part of the turnaround. How well the President’s softly, softly approach, to the factions in her party, to the electorate, and to China, will clearly be tested thoroughly.