I’ve been meaning to post about the renewed interest in constitutional reform over the last week or so. Michael Turton has already reported on this, and TOS has just blogged on Ma Ying-jeou’s position. Given that I think Ma is completely wrong on this issue, I felt the need to reply.
The background: Self-interest and stupidity
Just under two years ago, the Legislature (almost) unanimously approved a reform to the constitution which would halve the number of seats in the legislature to 113. At the time, I was impressed that legislators were willing to vote themselves out of a job for the good of the country. I’m now starting to suspect that they were just too stupid to realise that halving the legislature might actually affect them. Comprehension has slowly dawned on some of the legislators who are now, in a breath-takingly blatant show of naked self-interest, proposing that the number of seats be increased. There’s a news report here which correctly comments:
As a 113-member Legislature will inevitably drive many incumbent lawmakers out of jobs, some are seeking a constitutional reform to keep their careers alive.
Note that the actual number of legislators is a small detail of the constitution compared to more serious issues like the system of government. To give the whole thing a very thin veneer of respectability, the legislators are also proposing a move to a more parliamentary constitution; this is actually something worthy of debate. However, members of Taiwan’s parliament proposing to increase the power of the parliament is hardly what you’d call altruistic. (Needless to say, head of parliament Wang Jin-pyng is for an increase in parliament’s power while would-be-president Ma Ying-jeou is against this reduction in presidential power.)
The claim of these would-be-reformers is that 113 is just too small a number, and that there will be too much work for those poor legislators under this scheme. Given that most legislators treat the whole thing as a part-time job at best, this is pure bunkum. Hopefully, a reduction in numbers will force legislators to take their job seriously, and stop with the ridiculous grandstanding on TV. (If you want an example of Legislators doing something other than their job, interfering in a functioning legal process, profiting from personal tragedy and generally butting their noses in where they don’t belong then here is today’s sickening example.)
So Ma’s right to oppose reform?
Well, no. While he could have taken a sensible position like his DPP counterpart Yu Shyi-kun – who simply opposes an increase in the size of the legislature – he is opposing any changes. His speech last week at NTU was a classic example of getting everything wrong:
In a speech delivered at a symposium titled “The Growth of Constitutional Democracy and Its Challenges” held by the National Policy Foundation at National Taiwan University, Ma said the Constitution should not be treated as a scapegoat for Taiwan’s problems.
He said that revising the nation’s Constitution is not necessarily the cure-all for Taiwan’s political reforms.
Here’s the first stupid argument. Noone is treating the constitution as a scapegoat: The DPP have been constant in pushing for constitutional reform for years, and it was a key component of both of Chen Shui Bian’s election campaigns. It would probably be being pushed by the DPP even more strongly if they weren’t in their current mess. Equally noone is claiming it is a ‘cure-all’ – it is important for saner government, but everyone is well aware that Taiwan will still have idiotic politicians in charge after any change.
He pointed out that during the past short period of 15 years, the Constitution has been amended seven times — a rare phenomenon for any democratic country.
True. But then no democratic country has gone through the huge changes that the ROC has (no, TOS not even Germany which has had 23 amendments. Unifying two roughly equivalently sized countries is a smaller change than moving from the biggest country in the world to a tiny little island off its coast). It’s also a complete red herring – the issue is whether the current constitution is suitable, not whether the process up to now has been correct.
Ma said there are many burning issues that need to be addressed, including finding effective ways to prevent Taiwan’s economy from being further marginalized.
Maybe when Ma becomes president he will realise that a government needs to be able to hold more than one idea in its head at a time. He will also be pleased to hear that out of the 6 reform priorities that President Chen has announced, half of them are purely economic issue (and only 1 is to do with constitutional reform). Listing urgent priorities for the government has absolutely no relevance when discussing the importance of constitutional reform – it’s just another red herring.
Ma blamed the multitude of problems plaguing Taiwan today on the failure of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to observe the Constitution and its disregarding the spirit of democracy.
Now, I know the KMT-led legislature have passed laws which have been found to be unconstitutional (and, oh look, another one of dubious constitutionality was promulgated last week), and have also held huge weeks-long demonstrations to protest democractic elections whose results they didn’t like. I’m not aware of anything equivalent from the DPP though. It’s irrelevant, and yet another red herring anyway.
Unlike the DPP, he promised that the KMT will respect the opposition party that controls the Legislative Yuan when nominating a new premier if the KMT becomes the ruling party by winning the presidential race in 2008 but does not have a majority in the parliament.
The KMT chairman, who concurrently serves as mayor of capital Taipei with a Ph.D. in law from Harvard University, said the spirit of the existing Constitution is a “dual-chief system” to allow the form of government to flexibly switch from the presidential system to a Cabinet administrative system when the ruling party loses majority in the Legislative Yuan.
Now, this just makes no sense to me. What does ‘switching to a cabinet administrative system’ involve? Under the mumbo jumbo, all he’s saying is that he believes that the party with a majority in the legislature should always wield power – in other words he wants a parliamentary system. So why the oppostion to reform?
Ma pointed out the fact that President Chen Shui-bian, a lawyer by trade, openly declared in his campaign platforms in 2000 to back the “dual-chief system.” But Chen clang to the control of the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) after cashing in on the split of the KMT to win the presidency.
Which is of course false. Chen’s first act as president was to nominate a KMT stalwart as Premier. It was only when this failed that Chen moved to his current unilateral approach. The ‘dual-chief’ system thus moved from a desperate struggle to cooperate to a ‘DPP proposes, KMT blocks’ dual-chief system.
Incidentally, I love it when a politician calls upon the ‘spirit of the constitution’. Generally speaking this can be translated to “This is what I’d like the Constitution to say. Unfortunately it doesn’t”. As in this case. Ma’s claim that there should be dual-responsibility for the Executive Yuan is flat out wrong. Here’s what the constitution has to say on the matter:
The president of the Executive Yuan shall be appointed by the president.
You can’t really get much more simple than that. Of course, the Legislature can kick the Premier out of his job via a vote of no-confidence (in a similar manner to the way they can recall or impeach the president). Indeed, if Ma really thinks that the ‘spirit’ of that one sentence I quoted from the constitution is being abused, you have to wonder why the KMT have never exercised this power of no-confidence.
Of course, Ma has good personal reasons for opposing constitutional reform: It is championed by the DPP (so he can’t allow it to succeed), it might reduce the powers of the president (which he aspires to be), and the constitutional problems are currently unlikely to affect him (with the current state of affairs, he’s probably fairly confident of becoming president with a KMT-controlled legislature. If we end up with a DPP-controlled legislature and a KMT president he might change his tune).
So, what’s likely to happen? Absolutely nothing. Without Ma’s support, constitutional reform just isn’t going to happen. At least it means the recent hare-brained ideas of the legislators will go nowhere – I guess we should be thankful for small mercies.