May 15, 2004

Taiwan: Towards a Normal Constitutional Update

Plans to reform Taiwan's constitution should not be considered an attempt to change Taiwan's status quo as an independent, sovereign country
By Hsiao Bi-khim

Since its founding in 1949, China has promulgated four different constitutions. The last, enacted in 1982, has undergone four sets of amendments. Regardless of how many times China changes its constitution, it is still the same country -- the People's Republic of China.

Likewise, plans to reform Taiwan's constitution should not be considered an attempt to change Taiwan's status quo as an independent, sovereign country.

In fact, Taiwan's Constitution has already been amended six times -- the most significant amendments allowed for the direct election of the legislature and president. Other new provisions attempted to streamline the government's structure but proved to be largely unsatisfactory. Constitutional reformers were working with a Constitution that had originally been designed and promulgated back in 1947 for a government that ruled over China, not Taiwan. A sound constitutional structure forms the basis for the normal functioning of any country.

Taiwan's Constitution requires reform in three main areas:

-- Governance structure. In this area, the main question is whether Taiwan should have a presidential or Cabinet system of government, neither of which can describe Taiwan's current hodgepodge of governance structures. Under the present constitution, government is divided into three tiers and separated into five branches. The result is an unwieldy system that fails to clearly define political powers and duties.

The gravity of this problem was illustrated in 2000, when power struggles threatened to dismantle the six-month-old presidency. The opposition parties, which together still held a legislative majority, threatened to recall President Chen Shui-bian (???) in response to the premier's decision to terminate construction of a controversial nuclear power plant. They could have initiated a no-confidence vote against the premier, but then the president would remain in office and disband the legislature accordingly, leaving the opposition parties with the challenge of a new election. Under a Cabinet system, the premier would have dissolved the legislature, whereas under a presidential system the president would have veto power to resolve the controversy.

Clearly, a more stable system of governance is in order. The type of government also determines parliamentary design and electoral procedures.

-- Citizen's rights. Taiwanese can't vote until they are 20, one of the highest voting ages in the world. In order to extend the right to vote to 18-year-olds -- as 162 other countries have done -- a constitutional amendment is needed. In addition, the Constitution's guarantee of basic human rights could be expanded to include Aboriginal rights of self-determination.

-- Economic principles. The Constitution outlines a socialist organization of the economy, including the restriction of private capital and the equalization of land ownership. Although Taiwan has developed a vibrant capitalist economy, certain constitutional provisions -- such as an unusual incremental land-value tax scheme -- impede the effective use of resources and hinder overall competitiveness.

Why is constitutional reform necessary when Taiwan has already lived with such a cumbersome document for more than 50 years? The KMT's one-party control over all aspects of government also meant that the problems of an awkward governance structure due to an ill-designed Constitution were not apparent. Just as laws are amended and created to fit the changing needs of society, Taiwan needs a constitution that will be a workable foundation for its maturing democracy.

Hsiao Bi-khim is a legislator and the director of inter-national affairs for the Democratic Progressive Party.

Source: Taipei Times