Tag Archives: Taiwan

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>

Taiwan – Ma’s Presidential Blues

Taiwan’s President Ma jing-yeou has seen better days. The leader and his Kuomingtang (KMT) party-led Pan-Blue camp swept into the executive and legislature in 2008 and effectively took control of the semi-presidential system. The 2008 run ended the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s 8-year hold on the presidency and reduced the DPP’s plurality in the legislature from 40 percent to 24 percent (although the DPP increased electoral support in that election). Fast-forward to 2012: Ma successfully retained the presidential office, and the KMT-led Pan-Blue camp retained its legislative majority, albeit reduced to 64 seats. Analysts and pollsters noted the Taiwan electorate’s endorsement of the KMT-directive to continue to build ties with China, and it seemed that all was on track for the reelected leader and party to focus on reviving a weakening economy under conditions of the global financial crisis.

Yet, less than two years later, President Ma appears to be in a battle for his political life: he is facing single-digit approval ratings and mass protests calling for his resignation from the office.

Political development clearly benefits from greater government accountability, but when citizens mobilize to demand for greater accountability – such as these protests against President Ma – the vitality of the thousands or tens of thousands acting beyond periodic elections spurs efforts to harness that momentum towards concrete, documentable outcomes. These include demands for executive recall or even constitutional change.

It is no small irony that even as the protests against Ma are founded on the personalistic nature of his presidency – in particular, his effort to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng is seen as a political move that oversteps the separation of powers in semi-presidential and presidential systems – some of the changes demanded by protestors also move away from stable, institutional (constitutional) politics. It is, thus, opportune to consider: what changes improve the survival of the president as an institution in the semi-presidential system system but not that of the occupant?

Studies on semi-presidential systems note the instability of the political system in minority and deadlock conditions, particularly in comparison to their parliamentary counterparts.[1] These studies have spurred additional works that emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the performance of the political system and government’s policy performance to ensure government accountability without rejecting the political system in the process.[2]

Based on these studies, the answers are clear. Presidential approval/disapproval are fertile grounds for change if these changes relate to government accountability for policy performance. In the context of Taiwan, they may be used to impel changes that underlie policy performance and government accountability for that performance. Yet, importantly, caution must be exercised if approval/disapproval and protests are used to undergird institutional changes to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The term limits on the president means that Ma will not be eligible to stand for another election. This means that voters will not have the satisfaction of heaving him out of office. This may explain the swelling of protests to oust him out mid-term. Yet, it is no small irony that one recommendation for constitutional change to increase greater accountability and presidential approval while stabilizing the presidential system is to remove the term limits.[3]

References

[1] See some excellent discussions in Elgie (2011), Cheibub and Chernykh (2008), and Samuels and Shugart (2010).

[2] Mattes and Bratton (2007), Duch (2001), Yap (2013)

[3] Cheibub (2002)