Thursday, January 17, 2008

Taiwan’s Challenge: Parliamentary, Presidential, or Semi-presidential System

On Jan 12th, last Saturday, Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party (aka KMT or Kuo Ming Tang) won a landslide victory in legislatures election, 10 weeks before the crucial presidential election. The election result is widely regarded as a no-confidence vote to the current president Chen Shui Bian (or A-Bian) who has increasingly resorted to ludicrous rhetoric and pathetic personal attacks as the end of his 2nd and last term approaches. The result can also be seen as the voters’ disappointment at the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - a party that rose to power in relatively short time by being the first and leading voice of opposition and promising to rid of the corruption and monopoly of KMT. Unfortunately, after almost 8 years, President Chen and his DPP has not been able to demonstrate that they can attract and groom talents to govern the country effectively since their victory in the 2000 presidential election (KMT has continued to hold a majority in the legislature). Instead, they have been promoting extremism and focusing on ideology and Taiwan Independence with divisive and petty politics.

The most significant implication of this lopsided election victory is, in my opinion, the Nationalists Party now has the golden opportunity and can take the lead to amend the defective and crippled Constitution as DPP won only 27 of the 113 seats, less than ¼ of the legislature. The need and importance of amendments cannot be overstated: a healthy and stable democratic government can only be built on top of a thoughtful and well-designed Constitution.

A little digression: there are obviously many different types of government all over the world and in history (click here to see a current summary). For democratic nations, political scientists have broadly categorized the systems as Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-presidential for the executive and legislative functions. A principal concept and priority in the design of the Presidential system is, with U.S. being a well-known model, the separation of powers in which the president who is elected separately from the legislatures by popular votes has the executive power, appoints and leads the cabinet. Check and balance between executive and legislative is then achieved with mechanisms such as veto (by president) of legislation and confirmation of appointees (by legislature), etc. In contrast, Parliamentary system adopts the view that the parliament, i.e., the legislative body, shall select the prime minister and form the cabinet that holds the executive power with dissolving and re-election of the parliament as the primary mechanism of check and balance. While there are many variations of it including nations such as UK, Japan, and Singapore, the coalescing of executive and legislative powers in the Parliament system tends to have the advantage and thus disadvantage of quicker legislative actions. Semi-presidential system, on the other hand, is a hybrid of the above with an active president elected by people and a prime minister (appointed by the president) who may or may not be a member of the parliament or majority party is responsible to the legislature. This hybrid system can have a larger gray area in distribution of powers with widely varying dynamics and balance of power, depending on the particular design and individuals involved. French government is a well-known example of a Semi-presidential system. The pros and cons of each system and detailed designs is well studied in political science and documented by scholars with many real life models from the world.

With this classification, Taiwan’s system of government is clearly a semi-presidential one that is a more tricky to work with. Further and unfortunately, its Constitution was created and amended multiple times as results of power plays and compromises of two dominant and adversarial parties (KMT and DPP) who do not have clear visions nor always act on the best interest of people.

Taiwan has come a long way in transitioning towards to a multiparty democratic political system since the lifting of the martial law in 1987. With its twisted past history, complex psychology, and delicate relations with Japan and the mainland China, the progress has been slow in substance however. Meanwhile, as China continues to accelerate its changes in domestic and economic policies and poises to become the next new world super power, Taiwan will face even tougher challenges and choices that require collective wisdom and will of the people that currently do not exist. The problem is a serious one; it is fundamental and structural and time is running out. As Richard Bush III of the Brookings Institution put it well in his Sept 2007 article The Four Faces of Taiwan Democracy: “… Regrettably, Taiwan's institutions - semi-presidentialism, the legislature, the party system, the electoral system, and the mass media—work together in a perverse way that rewards political gamesmanship over good policy. They reduce accountability, foster a zero-sum political psychology, promote policy deadlock, ensure suboptimal policy performance, and defer consensus on the rules of the game.”

It is imperative that something is done with Taiwan’s Constitution as soon as possible. There have been serious debates among some politicians and scholars if other systems or tweaking further the current semi-presidential system would be best for Taiwan. Sadly this issue has not been receiving sufficient attention and priority nor open and in-depth discussions. My gut feeling is a Parliamentary system that encourages broader multiparty representations and centrism would be best. I would challenge the elected legislatures and next President (Ma, Ying-jeou?!) to make an honest effort to lead amendments to the Constitution with thoughtful inputs from learned, objective, and non-partisan individuals. Only then, we can hope to see a more stable and effective government in Taiwan that will address its people’s welfare and take it to a prosperous future.

Talk to you soon!

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