Taiwan's lawmakers on the road to real change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 12:00am

Taiwan's lawmakers are not renowned for their ability to reach a consensus, especially when faced with proposals for wholesale constitutional reform. So this week's vote in favour of sweeping changes to the political system can be considered an achievement in itself.

But the real benefit of the historic reforms lies in their potential to bring in a cleaner and more efficient legislature with greater ability to act as a check on the power of the president.

The amendments form part of President Chen Shui-bian's reform programme. And the overwhelming support they received from lawmakers underlines the public's appetite for change. But the form they have taken, after much horse-trading between the major parties, should not unduly alarm the mainland. They will make controversial moves towards a change in Taiwan's status less easy to achieve.

The amendments will slash the size of the legislature from 225 lawmakers to 113. Given the Legislative Yuan's reputation for pointless bickering and frequent fist fights, it might be argued that the fewer lawmakers, the better.

It is the changes to the voting system, however, that offer the best means of lifting the quality of the legislators. Under the new system, only one lawmaker will be elected from each constituency. Seventy-three of them will win their seats under this first-past-the-post system.

Electors will also get a second vote - for a party, not a candidate. These will be used to fill the remaining seats, which will be distributed according to the overall proportion of votes each party receives.

The reforms will benefit the two biggest parties, at the expense of smaller ones and independent candidates. One advantage of this is that candidates with extreme views - or backed by gangsters - will be unlikely to win enough votes for a seat. Factionalism should be reduced and the prospects of rational debate enhanced. That, at least, is the theory.

Scrapping the ad-hoc National Assembly will provide the legislature with a further boost to its status, although the National Assembly will have to be convened one last time in order to endorse the changes.

The amendments to the manner in which constitutional reforms can be made are the ones with the greatest bearing on cross-strait relations.

An attempt by Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party to allow the people to initiate a referendum on constitutional change did not attract enough support.

In the end, the party backed down and the new arrangements provide for the legislature to trigger reforms. Proposals must be passed by at least three-quarters of the lawmakers. Only then will a referendum be held to ratify the plans.

The 75 per cent threshold is a high one. It will make controversial changes to Taiwan's status, viewed by the mainland as moves towards independence, difficult to bring about.

Under the reform package there is also a mechanism for recalling or impeaching the president and vice-president. Two-thirds of legislators would need to support such a move. But it does at least provide a better balance between executive and legislative power.

For all the potential advantages of the amendments, it is surprising that the vote was almost unanimous. Even legislators who will be placed at a disadvantage by the new voting system were prepared to back it. This is because the reforms enjoy widespread support from a public that is fed up with the chaotic and disreputable image the legislature often presents. It is as good a reason as any for ringing the changes.

The reforms will not, by themselves, sweep away Taiwan's political problems. Much will depend on those who are elected under the new system. But the changes are a big step in the right direction. They could help repair some of the damage done in this year's disputed presidential election.