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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.

Notes

[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>