The constitutional mess
Here he is on more solid ground. The current constitution has undergone six bouts of amendments since the 1990s to reflect more accurately Taiwan's transition to multi-party democracy, but from a structural perspective the work is still something of a mess. Well-executed, a new constitution would consolidate democratic reforms and strengthen the political system.
Taiwan has neither a solid presidential nor parliamentary system of government. This would create headaches for any minority government, but in Taiwan's confrontational political landscape it has led to near legislative deadlock.
The island also needs to streamline its branches of government. Instead of the usual three branches - legislative, executive and judiciary - one finds in most democracies, Taiwan has a rambling five to seven branches, depending on how one classifies them.
Finally, the electoral system needs some fine-tuning. On a very basic level, elections are too frequent in Taiwan, there has been a major election nearly every year for the last decade, which can create voter apathy among the electorate and also constrain innovative policymaking among politicians.
However, all this begs the question that the opposition has posed: Why not merely amend the present mess to rectify these flaws rather than go for an all-out overhaul? And once again the issue boils down to the two very different visions of Taiwan's future and the island's identity that each side holds. On one side, the pan-greens' vision is of an indigenous Taiwanese identity and a separate Taiwanese state, and on the other, the pan-blues' vision is of at least accommodating the mainland.
Chen has promised that his new constitution would not deal with the thorny issue of sovereignty. Yet this is a disingenuous argument - it would be very difficult for a new constitution not to deal with the formal name of Taiwan, and there would be plenty of scope to codify concepts that would accelerate a trend toward creeping Taiwanese nationhood. In addition, any ratification of a new constitution by referendum would represent a sovereign act by the people of Taiwan, an effective declaration of independence from the mainland.
The highly politicized and acrimonious nature of the constitutional debate and the internal political backdrop against which it is taking place is unfortunate. Constitutional reforms or amendments are necessary for the island if it wants to consolidate its transition to a vibrant democracy fully and be capable of making good political choices in the long run. The most fundamental of these choices is in cross-Strait relations, and a weak, messy structure will render it hard to make effective choices. Increased paralysis and instability clearly aren't conducive to helping create the structure to make effective decisions,regardless of whether one is pro-unification or pro-independence.
In short, the quality of Taiwan's democratic architecture will affect cross-Strait relations whatever the island ends up with, but however it gets there looks set to be protracted and messy. Brace yourself for a tough year in Taiwanese politics.
Jamie Miyazaki is a freelance journalist and political risk analyst specializing in North Asia.
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