Desperate to find a sliver lining

Anyone who’s read my previous comments on the recall process over the last two weeks will know I think it was a ridiculous parody of a properly functioning democracy … hence the ‘carnival of idiots’ tag. So I was interested to read an article by Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) (via ESWN) which tried to put a positive spin on it all.

I have a lot of respect for Lung – she’s a very articulate commentator who manages to be remarkably uncynical and pretty non-partisan (albeit blue-tinted) when writing about Taiwan and its politics. Her articles are almost always worth reading and thinking about. Unfortunately, in this article she seems desperate to spin the recall movement as a ‘victory for the Taiwanese people’:

A glorious day is today. Today is a glorious day. Future history will record that on June 27, 2006, the people of Taiwan exercised to their right to urge a president to resign.

Unfortunately, she’s lost it in the first paragraph:’the people of Taiwan’ have not exercised anything. From the beginning, the recall process has been purely of the politicians, by the politicians, and for the politicians – and it has perished from the earth. She then continues about the average Taiwanese voter:

He has thrown off the chains of power, he has tried elections and he has tried referenda. Now, he has taken another step to attempt an ouster vote. The ouster may not succeed, but the people have issued a clear warning to political figures: I can elect you, and I can also recall you.

Again, she’s wrong. Let me rewrite it for her:

The KMT has lost the reigns of power, it has tried elections and it has tried to block referenda. Now, it has taken another step to attempt an ouster vote. The ouster has not succeeded, but the KMT have been issued a clear warning: It couldn’t beat Chen in elections, and it also can’t recall him.

Not quite such a positive thing now. The sad thing is, she follows up with something I agree with completely:

Nobody in the world can deny this: Taiwan has a group of citizens who have the highest political sensitivity, maturity and autonomy in the entire Chinese-language world.

The Taiwanese voters are an admirable bunch. Unfortunately they regularly elect a group of politicians who have the lowest political sensitivity, maturity and autonomy in the entire democratic world (Update: Sun Bin points out in the comments that there are worse democratic politicians that the Taiwanese. It’s easy to forget that when watching Taiwan Politics!). This apparant disconnect can be explained by the simple question: “How on earth did Chen Shui-bian get elected in the first place?”, to which the answer is “Didn’t you see who he was running against?”.

The article does make a couple of very valid points:

  • It is at least a good thing that corruption scandals can be alleged and examined against the president. This touches on something I have been meaning to write about for a while: You can expect corruption in Taiwan to be seen to get worse before it get better. The endemic corruption that has plagued Taiwan for decades is not going to go away overnight – but the increased exposure of individual cases will help reduce it (while increasing its profile)
  • Chen Shui-bian (and ALL other Taiwanese politicians) are products of their society. In particular, people go into politics to make money, not to serve the people (of course there are exceptions, but you won’t go far wrong if you use it as a guiding principle).

Midway through the piece, Lung identifies one of the major problems of politics today:

As for an ideal that we can look forward to — who can say what the ideal of Taiwan is? In this society, it has been years since anyone talked about ideals. The entire efforts of the country are invested in the debate over one person. A critical key to solving problems became the source of problems instead.

She is absolutely right – and I would agree with her if she were to say that Taiwan would be better off without Chen as president for precisely that reason. So, if the incessant debate about Chen’s rule is one of the fundamental problems in Taiwan today, then how can a recall process that (from the beginning) had absolutely no chance of success be anything other than a complete disaster? Given her statement above, it’s a pity that Lung doesn’t think to criticize the people who are driving this pointless debate about Chen.

Chen’s Recall: Sun rises in the East

As everyone knew it would, the vote to recall Chen Shui-bian failed today.

June 27 (Bloomberg) — Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian survived a parliamentary vote to oust him after the opposition failed to muster the two-thirds majority required.

Opposition lawmakers sought to trigger a public vote on whether to remove Chen on allegations family members used their status for personal gain. The opposition alliance garnered 119 of the 148 votes needed to pass the motion. The 87 members of Chen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party refused to vote.

For the vote to have passed, a significant number of DPP members would have needed to vote for it. Asking DPP members to vote against Chen is one thing, but asking them to vote with the KMT & PFP is a bit like asking them to stop breathing (or, being Taiwanese politicians, stop fighting).

So, this round of The Carnival of Idiots is now over. What happens next?

It’s like deja vu all over again

When the pan-Blues were mulling recalling President Chen, it was the PFP (and James Soong in particular) who were pushing for the recall to go ahead. KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou was less enthusiastic, and initially claimed he would only support a recall if Chen Shui-Bian was directly implicated in a corruption scandal. Facing pressure from Soong, Ma changed his mind and threw his support behind a recall.

Now, the exact same thing seems to be happening with a proposed no-confidence vote in Premier Su Tseng-chang. The PFP are pushing for it, while the KMT are less enthusiastic. Will history repeat itself, with the KMT meekly doing the bidding of the PFP? Time will tell.

However, kudos should be given to KMT Whip Pan Wei-kang who is the first politician I’ve seen who’s publicly acknowledged the looming constitutional crisis, and said it should be avoided.

Stressing that the KMT would do its best to pass the presidential recall vote in the Legislative Yuan Tuesday, Pan said it would be untimely to call for a no confidence vote in the legislature to topple the Cabinet before redistricting of electoral constituencies has been completed for the next legislative election.

Meanwhile, the ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’ prize for the most oddly optimistic view of what might happen next goes to the Taipei Times:

A new political atmosphere is likely to emerge after tomorrow’s legislative vote as Chen has proposed to push for political consultations with the opposition and talks with China after the vote on his recall.

Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) on Saturday expressed the hope of organizing a “blue sky, green ground” tea party after the vote on the recall motion, in the hope of creating a more harmonious political environment.

Taiwan’s 6-year political standoff can be solved by a tea party … now why didn’t anyone else think of that?

Who really wants Chen recalled?

On the face of it, this sounds like a really stupid question. Every poll that has been done has shown a significant percentage of people who want Chen Shui-bian recalled (the percentages vary – usually reflecting the bias of the pollsters). However, I’m not talking about real people, I’m talking about politicians. It is, of course, axiomatic that every politician bases everything they do on self-interest. When Ma Ying-jeou said “Let me make it clear, the recall drive isn’t a political power game. It aims solely to attain responsible government.” all I could do was admire his deadpan sense of humour.

So, which politicians want (i.e. would benefit from) Chen Shui-bian recalled? Well, let’s look at what would happen if he were recalled:

President Annette Lu

If Chen is recalled, then the current Vice-president Annette Lu will immediately take over and serve out the rest of Chen’s term (i.e. until May 2008). That would mean:

  • Someone who is a much more outspoken advocate of Taiwanese Independence than Chen has ever been would be president.
  • Someone who is even less of a diplomat (more abrasive and less likely to compromise her principals to get agreement) would be president.
  • A recalled Chen would lose nearly all his control over the DPP. Given that Chen is generally hindering reform and progress in the DPP now, that could only be good news for the DPP (and so bad news for the KMT).
  • Despite the fact that Chen won’t be running in 2008, one of the KMT’s likely trump cards in that (and the preceding Legislative elections) would have been ‘look how badly CSB has cocked things up’. With Chen long-gone, this is much less powerful.
  • One of Annette Lu’s (few) strong points is her perceived strong personal integrity and distance from any corruption scandals. A godsend to the DPP in their current scandal-ridden mess, but not for the KMT.
  • One of the ways that the DPP have won elections in the past was by winding up China and causing them to do something stupid; CSB was a master at this. Although China seem to have wised up to this tactic, the only politician in the world who can rile China more than Chen Shui-bian is Annette Lu.

So, there are plenty of reasons for most pan-Green politicians to welcome a recall. On the flip side:

  • The Blues might gain support for ‘saving Taiwan from the evil president Chen’. Even if this does happen (which I’m dubious about), I suspect it would only be a short-term spike in support. A year down the line, with politics in exactly the same stalemate as before, I think it will be seen as just another bit of politicking.
  • There’s a good chance that Lu will do something irretrievably stupid as president (she has a long history of opening her mouth before engaging her brain).
  • If the blues could arrange to recall Lu as well, then they would force new presidential elections. I’m sure Ma would love that – but recalling Lu would be harder than recalling Chen.

To my mind, the advantages for the pan-Greens far outweigh the advantages for the pan-Blues. So we have the odd situation where the pan-Blues are pushing for a recall while secretly hoping it fails, while the pan-Greens are strongly opposing the recall while secretly hoping it will succeed. (That is, of course, assuming the relevant people have thought the whole thing through … which is probably an unwarranted assumption). As I said before: A carnival of idiots.

Update on no-confidence vote

Well, the carnival of idiots (otherwise known as the drive to recall Chen Shui-bian) is well underway, but of limited interest and importance to me. Angry politicians have shouted, incensed supporters have screamed, but it hasn’t changed the fact that the recall drive will fail.

However, the KMTs follow up action of a no-confidence vote in the Executive Yuan is still likely to happen. As I wrote last week, this is infinitely more serious than the recall drive – and the problems are only now starting to be aired properly in the press. The head of the CEC yesterday gave his view on what would happen if the Legislature was dissolved, and new elections were required:

CEC Chairman Chang Cheng-hsiung (張政雄) said that if a no-confidence vote toppled the Cabinet and the president then decided to dissolve the legislature and hold snap elections, new legislative districts drawn up by the CEC should be used in that election — even if the plan had not received legislative approval.

An election without legally approved districts? Well, it would prove right all those who claim that Taiwanese democracy is a joke, I suppose. Unfortunately, it seems to be about the only option available to the CEC.

Interpreting the constitution

When questioning the CEC Chairman various legislators tried to argue for using the old legislative election rules.

KMT Legislator Lee Ching-hua (李慶華) questioned Chang on the issue, noting that the constitutional amendment as written takes effect with the Seventh Legislature while a new election would be held before the term of the Sixth Legislature had expired.

PFP legislators Feng Ting-kuo (馮定國) and Chang Hsien-yao (張顯耀) took issue with Chang’s view, arguing that the current electoral system should continue to be applied if voting districts for the new electoral system had yet to be approved.

Feng and Chang seem to be arguing that the Constitution should just be ignored when inconvenient, which is an obviously moronic argument, while Lee Ching-hua’s argument does at least merit analysis. Unfortunately for Lee, the answer is pretty obvious. Here are the relevant recent constitutional ammendments:

[From Article 2] Following the dissolution of the Legislative Yuan, an election for legislators shall be held within 60 days. The new Legislative Yuan shall convene of its own accord within ten days after the results of the said election have been confirmed, and the term of the said Legislative Yuan shall be reckoned from that date.

[From Article 4] Beginning with the Seventh Legislative Yuan, the Legislative Yuan shall have 113 members, who shall serve a term of four years, which is renewable after re-election.

From the highlighted passages, it is clear that any election would be for a completely new legislature which would have a full 4-year term. In other words, it’s not an ‘extension’ of the sixth legislature in any way, and so can only be the seventh legislature. So the CEC’s analysis is correct, and the new rules apply. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a constitutional ruling on this (as requested by the legislators).

Potential Chaos

So, we have the prospect of legislative elections of dubious legality, fought between contestants who will no doubt be complaining loudly about the unfairness of the districts used. Add to that the almost inevitable administrative chaos the rushed implementation of these rules will cause. Then we can expect 4 years of demonstrations from the losers about the illegality of the elections. Marvellous.

Potential solutions

There are three ways that this crisis could be avoided:

  1. The KMT & DPP legislators could actually agree on the districts, and pass the relevant legislation before any no-confidence vote. However the likelihood of the two sides agreeing on anything at the moment are fairly slim, so this looks unlikely.
  2. The KMT could back off from their promised no-confidence vote. Very unlikely to happen.
  3. Chen Shui-bian could decide not to dissolve the legislature after the no-confidence vote.

Unfortunately, any decision by Chen not to dissolve the legislature will no doubt be painted as cowardice by the pan-Blues – indeed KMT spokeswoman Cheng Li-wen has already said that the KMT will continue to pass no-confidence votes in any new Executive Yuan president that Chen appoints until Chen does dissolve the legislature.

When you realise that Chen Shui-bian is all that’s standing between Taiwan and real legislative chaos, you know you’re in pretty dire straits …

Footnote: Of course, it should be noted that the no-confidence vote that is being planned is actually a vote against Su Tseng Chang and his cabinet. Given that Su is fairly popular at the moment, and has been carefully avoiding getting involved in the whole recall business and instead concentrated on running the country, a no-confidence vote against him is a dangerous move. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a distincy possibility that the whole recall/no-confidence movement could backfire on the KMT.

Recall the president

As promised, the KMT-led opposition yesterday started proceedings to have President Chen Shui-bian recalled.

The Legislative Yuan decided yesterday to try President Chen Shui-bian in the nation’s first ever attempt to recall the head of state.

Wang Jin-pyng, president of the Legislative Yuan, announced the outcome of a vote in favor of deliberation on a recall motion in the morning.

In a 113-96 vote, the opposition alliance of the Kuomintang and the People First Party passed the motion to deliberate on the recall at four plenary meetings on June 21, 22, 23 and 26.

On June 27, the recall motion will be put to a final vote on the floor of the nation’s highest legislative organ.

Obvious questions which I’ll try to answer here are ‘Will it succeed?’, ‘Is it justified?’, ‘Why are they doing it?’, and ‘Is it a good move?’. Interestingly, these questions are completely independent of each other.

Will it succeed?

No. It hasn’t got a chance, and everyone knows it.

The recall motion has two hurdles to clear, and it would fail both of them. The first is to get 2/3rds of the Legislature supporting the motion. Party loyalty is strong in Taiwan, and even a currently unpopular figure like Chen can still rely on the support of all his DPP legislators in this – so there will only be a fraction over 50% who will vote for a recall.

The 2nd hurdle is a public referendum. Although this is less well reported, this would fail too even if the motion was passed in the legislature, and the reason has nothing to do with Chen’s (un)popularity. You can be pretty sure that more people would vote for him to be recalled than for him to stay, but the referendum also needs 50% of the electorate voting. Taking a leaf out of the KMTs ‘boycott the referendum’ strategy in 2004, the whole thing could be defeated by the DPP asking people to stay at home and not vote. At that point, only the KMT faithful and the ones with a really strong dislike of CSB would be voting – the apathetic, the ones pissed off with politicians in general, the ones who think this is all a political stunt, and the DPP faithful would be at home ensuring the whole thing fails.

A final point on this: anyone voting for a recall would be voting for Annette Lu for president – does anyone expect a huge turnout to vote for that?

Is it justified?

This is purely a matter of personal opinion. The constitution says absolutely nothing about the justification of a presidential recall. The additional laws on recall simply say that the legislators must provide a reason. Yet another victory for Taiwan’s screwed-up constitution.

Hoping to cover all the bases, the opposition have filed 10 reasons for the recall – ranging from corruption (the main trigger for all this – Chen’s son-in-law, his wife and his advisors have all been tangled up in corruption scandals recently), policies they don’t like (albeit policies which got him elected), and the inevitable ‘he faked his assassination’ claims (needless to say with no evidence). I don’t think they’ve included his hairstyle in the list of complaints, but that would have been equally as valid – as this all just boils down to a straight vote on ‘Do you want CSB as president?’.

Why are they doing it?

Because they see political advantage in it. Given that they know it won’t succeed, and there are no legal guidelines for it, this can only be a calculated gamble that it will decrease support for the DPP/increase support for the KMT & PFP. The whole recall process gives the opposition a chance to rant about the (many) failings of their prime political enemy, which is the highest goal that any true Taiwanese politician ever aspires to.

Is it a good move?

This is, of course, the big question in all of this: Which political party will really profit out of it?

The KMT (and PFP) are gambling that focusing on Chen Shui-bian, and forcing the rest of the DPP to defend him, will tarnish the DPP more. Clearly, corruption scandals hurt the DPP, who used to champion themselves as a clean alternative to the black-gold KMT. However, there are several dangers with this approach.

Firstly, focusing on Chen can be seen as fighting yesterday’s battles: It won’t be Chen standing for election in 2008, and so scapegoating him could backfire – for example Frank Hsieh must be very happy: just a few months ago Hsieh was a virtual pariah, and seen as too tainted by corruption for the DPP, while now he’s regaining ground as an anyone-not-tainted-by-CSB candidate.

Secondly, this recall is fairly transparently an exercise in mud-slinging. If the mud fails to stick (or the target is already so muddy it makes no difference), then the pan-Blues just end up sullying themselves. The DPP are pointing out a whole range of constructive legislation (e.g. flood-relief bills, not to mention arms bills) that are being held up by this. The KMT have a long history of obstructionist behaviour which hasn’t yet come back to hurt them too badly – but this risks being a turning point. If the Taiwanese public start seeing the government paralysis as being caused by the pan-Blue legislature (rather than the pan-Green presidency/executive), then the KMT are in trouble.

So, the whole thing is a gamble – it could pay dividends, but it could backfire. But here’s an important point: It is a gamble that Ma Ying-jeou has no need to play. Ma is so far ahead in the polls that all he has to do is keep smiling at the camera and he is virtually assured of legislative success in 2007, and presidential success in 2008.

At this point, it should be noted that the man leading the recall movement is James Soong, who is dragging along a rather less enthusiastic Ma Ying-jeou. As head of the PFP, Soong has nothing to lose – his party is slowly fading, and will be destroyed in the 2007 legislative elections. It seems that Ma is playing along because he doesn’t want to be seen as a weak leader (isn’t that ironic? Doing what Soong says so that he can appear in control and decisive). To paraphrase Tony Blair, Ma wants to be seen as being ‘Tough on CSB. Tough on the causes of CSB.’

When you consider this move as a gamble of a desperate man, and consider how Soong seems to have a 100% record in unintentionally helping the DPP with everything he does (thanks to Sun Bin for reminding me about this), my suspicion is that Ma Ying-jeou could end up regretting this recall motion far more than Chen Shui-bian.

No-confidence in democracy

Anyone who watches Taiwanese democracy will have a little bit of trouble taking Taiwanese Legislators seriously – so the latest threat to recall President Chen could just be seen as politicians doing what politicians do (i.e. ranting in front of a TV camera) … after all it’s been a whole 3 months since the pan-Blue opposition announced they would recall Chen.

However, this time there’s a rather worrying possibility. If the opposition follow through with their threat to start recall proceedings, which will of course fail, they are threatening a vote of no-confidence in a different president, president of the Executive Yuan Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌). If this happens, then Su will probably ask President Chen to dissolve the Legislative Yuan. And this is where the problems start.

Legislative Yuan elections: What are the rules?

Under last year’s constitutional reform, the rules for the next LY have been dramatically altered. There’s a different voting method, the number of legislators has been reduced, and the districts need to be redefined. The details of what the districts are, and how the election should be held thus need to be updated, and voted into law. So, the current laws relating to election are no longer valid and the legislative yuan needs to vote through updates to these laws – but they won’t be able to do this if the legislature has been dissolved. Or in other words, if the legislature were to be dissolved:
Taiwan can’t hold LY elections until the laws are updated, but the laws can’t be updated until the LY elections are held.

What would happen then is anyone’s guess – the legislature would join the Control Yuan and the Examination Yuan in limbo with no obvious solution. The phrase ‘constitutional crisis’ might be a bit of an understatement at that point.

Incidentally, it is the job of the Central Election Committee to propose the new rules and districts for elections. They have (I believe) already done their job – but the Legislature has been too busy fighting and eating proposed legislation to get round to reviewing and voting on the proposals.

Disclaimer: This post is done after a complete 3-week holiday from Taiwanese politics and while fighting jetlag – so apologies if this issue has already been discussed (or indeed solved!) already.

10 Years of democracy

By my reckoning, today marks the 10th anniversary of Taiwan’s democracy. On 20th May 1996 Lee Teng-hui gave this speech at his inauguration. The election (two months previously) was the first time that Taiwan’s president had been democratically elected. Of course, there was some democracy before this – there had been increasingly democratic elections for the legislature and the national assembly in the years before it, but this marked the final point when Taiwan could finally call itself a democratic country.

Lee’s speech is hardly a classic, but there’s one interesting aspect that runs through the speech. Number of times China/Chinese mentioned: 44. Numer of times Taiwan mentioned: 21. His emphasis on the election being a victory for Chinese people, his explicit dismissal of Taiwan independence and his focus on China make for interesting reading given what we now know (and many people suspected back then) about his real feelings on the issue. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Note: I’m on holiday for 3 weeks from today, so things will be quiet here for a while.

THIS year, it will be different

You must need to have huge reserves of optimism to be a Taiwanese international diplomat. Again and again you find people siding with China against you, but you still keep thinking that things will get better:

Several high-ranking government officials expressed confidence yesterday in Taiwan’s bid to gain entry to the World Heath Organization this year and lambasted China’s continual efforts to foil Taiwan’s attempts to join the world health body.

Speaking at the “2006 Taiwan’s Quest for Participation in the World Health Organization” press conference held at the Government Information Office yesterday, Department of Health Minister Hou Sheng-mou (侯茂) said that due to the imminent global threat of avian flu, based on ethical and humanitarian considerations, many medical professional groups around the world have voiced their support for Taiwan to become part of the WHO.

Here’s a quick recap: Taiwan has tried every year for the last 9 years to become an observer at the World Health Assembly. Each time it’s been blocked by China.

  • Two years ago, with SARS having proved how important international cooperation is for health matters, China blocked Taiwan’s application.
  • One year ago, with Avian Flu starting to raise it’s ugly head, and just after China promised to help Taiwan’s participation in the WHO (at the Hu-Lien meeting), China blocked Taiwan’s application.

Note that, despite the fact that the application is for a ‘health entity’ not a country, Taiwan’s application hasn’t even got as far as a vote yet. And still they’re confident this year …

Of course, it goes without saying that Taiwan should be represented – but then when did common sense (or international health considerations) ever play a part in these sorts of decisions?

Update: On the issue of Taiwan’s international presence, Mad Minerva notes that the recent ‘Failed States Index‘ published by Foreign Policy magazine has come up with a novel way to handle Taiwan’s tricky situation: remove the island from the map completely! At least you can’t be classified as a failed state when you’ve sunk beneath the waves …

Taipei Mayoral Elections: Farce and Democracy

If you want a snapshot of the current status of the two main political parties, you don’t have to look much further than the upcoming election for Mayor of Taipei. Both parties are busy trying to select their candidate for the election later in the year, and boy what a contrast!

The DPP: Chaos Reigns

For a long time, it looked like there would be only one possible candidate: Shen Fu-hsiung (沈富雄). Shen has made no secret of his desire to become mayor for years. Up until a couple of years ago, Shen would have been a shoo-in for the DPP candidacy; he has been the DPPs premier Taipei-based legislator for 4 consecutive elections. However, a falling out with the DPP leadership during the 2004 presidential campaign, and an attempt to find middle ground between the DPP and KMT resulted in a loss of support within the DPP, which ultimately resulted in him losing his seat in the 2004 Legislative elections.

Shen picked up an application form for the DPP candidacy early on, but delayed handing in his application. At the last moment, he announced that he wouldn’t apply:

Shen later told local media that it would be foolish for him to still register for the DPP mayoral primary election when “the entire DPP treats me like an outsider and views me as a nothing,” which showed that previous resistance to his candidacy by DPP members had not been forgotten.

However, you can’t take this at face value, because it comes hot on the heels of Frank Hsieh (who has been under heavy DPP pressure to apply for the job) announcing that he wouldn’t apply, but would be willing to be drafted if noone else applied. Given that Shen received a phone call from DPP Chairman Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) before deciding not to apply (and got lavisly praised by Yu for doing so), you’ve got to wonder exactly how much pressure was applied to stop Shen standing.

When it became clear that noone was going to stand for the DPP candidacy DPP Legislator You Ching (尤清) realised he had a chance to sneak in when noone was looking. By picking up an application form and applying right at the last minute You nearly threw a huge spanner into the DPPs machinations. After a very frantic inspection of the form, the DPP managed to find a minor mistake in the application, and (with a huge sigh of relief) threw out the application.

So, after pressurizing a candidate who wanted to stand to stop him, and throwing out the candidacy of another on a technicality, the DPP is left with no candidate. This leaves them free to draft a candidate who has publicly stated that he has no interest in the position. In other words, the DPP are in a complete mess – and their process can be called neither particularly democratic nor progressive.

The KMT: Democracy in action

Meanwhile, the KMT machine is humming along in serene manner. After Ma Ying-jeou explicitly ruled out pulling strings to engineer a KMT nomination for James Soong, the process has been shockingly open. Twelve candidates announced their candidacy – and this was later culled down to the three most popular candidates: Yeh Chin-chuan (葉金川), Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), and Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) . Hau is the highest profile politician of the three: the ex-New Party member, ex-government minister (or DPP ‘collaborator’ to some), Hau has consistently topped opinion polls, and is favourite to win the candidacy. Meanwhile, Yeh is running as ‘mini-Ma’: he was Ma Ying-jeou’s deputy and so is hoping some of Ma’s glamour can rub off on him. Finally, Ting hopes his status as a veteran Legislator will swing things his way.

The three candidates recently had a televised debate to promote their candidacies, and although there have been some accusations of favouritism within the KMT, it’s looking like a fair and open race at the moment. Whoever would have thought that you could make that claim about an internal KMT selection process? Wonders will never cease.
Update: To complete the comparison, I should mention the PFP. Unsurprisingly, Soong is treating this as his personal fiefdom, and even the thought of primaries (i.e. anyone standing against Soong) hasn’t been mentioned. Soong will do what he wants, and expect total support and obedience from his party.

Update II: To add to the DPPs woes, the favourite for DPP candidacy for the Kaohsiung mayoral elections is acting Mayor Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭) – who hasn’t applied for the job. I’m looking forward to seeing if (or how) the two people who have stood for the position (former CLA Chairwoman Chen Chu (陳菊) and Legislator Kuan Pi-ling (管碧玲)) will be pushed aside.

Constitutional reform flare-up

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.