Thursday, July 29, 2004

Taiwan’s “new constitution” will be focused on improving democratic governance and protecting civil liberties, and won’t touch the sensitive issues in cross-strait relations, a Taiwan government minister said in Washington last week.

“After so many years of transition, it’s time that Taiwan move forward and come up with a new constitution. That ‘new’ doesn’t mean a separate government. The ‘new’ means new timing, new process and new scope,” Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong, chairman of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission under Taiwan’s executive branch, said during a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mr. Yeh said the new constitution will reflect Taiwan’s emergence from a one-party state to a full-fledged democracy; involve a broader and less elitist discussion among multiple political parties and social groups; and entail a more holistic reform, rather than a single-issue approach.

This new round of constitutional reform “has little to do with the one-China policy,” Mr. Yeh said. “As President Chen [Shui-bian] said [in his inaugural address May 20], the national sovereignty, territory and independence versus reunification are not going to be included in this round of constitutional reform. Those issues have to be addressed in another forum.”

Taiwanese leaders say the Republic of China’s 1947 constitution is an anachronism. Written in Nanjing, China, more than a half-century ago, the constitution was drafted for a large, underdeveloped country, not for an industrialized society of 23 million. It should be replaced with a new constitution, not merely a revised constitution, to better reflect the island’s democracy and commitment to human rights, they say.

Mr. Chen and other Taiwanese politicians want a constitution they can call their own — a constitution by and for the people of Taiwan. But Mr. Chen has stopped short of espousing constitutional items that indicate declarations of Taiwan’s independence from China.

This means that Taiwan won’t change its official name, the Republic of China — ROC for short — to what former President Lee Teng-hui, an advocate of Taiwan’s independence, suggested early this month at the first convening of the “Action for a Taiwanese Constitution” movement: “Taiwan” or its variations, “Taiwan Republic of China” or “ROC on Taiwan.”

Even the ROC’s territorial boundaries, as stated in the constitution, are unlikely to be altered. The ROC today exercises control over Taiwan and several offshore islands, including Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, but the 1947 constitution holds a one-China view in which the ROC controls mainland China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

Among the topics to be addressed, which have been debated frequently by scholars and politicians, are whether Taiwan should change its five-branch political system to a three-branch government, elect the president by a plurality or majority vote, shrink the legislature, and abolish the National Assembly and provincial governments.

In his second inaugural address on May 20, Mr. Chen, under intense pressure from Washington, scrapped his campaign pledge to call a referendum to approve a new constitution and has maintained this position ever since, rankling his pro-independence supporters. Mr. Chen also stated his commitment to “a new version of our constitution,” as the top priority for his second term. He said it should be drawn up by 2006 and implemented by 2008, the end of his eight-year presidency.

Creating the new document will follow the guidelines provided in the current constitution, Mr. Chen said at his inauguration. The Legislative Yuan, the national legislature, will draft the new constitution, which must pass with a three-fourths majority.

The now-suspended National Assembly, an electoral college that used to elect the president but is still responsible for making constitutional amendments, will reconvene and its members will be elected based on proportional representation of political parties. National Assembly representatives must ratify the new constitution with a three-fourths majority.

Despite six previous rounds of constitutional revision — the most significant of which allowed for direct election of the president and national legislators — Mr. Chen, Taiwanese politicians and analysts often have criticized the constitution and its piecemeal amendments for creating a cumbersome and inefficient government and opportunities for official corruption.

Clearing confusion

The current constitution is not clear on whether the central government should be a presidential or parliamentary system. In recent years, fear has been expressed that the presidency is too powerful compared with the legislature, having been considerably strengthened from a partially presidential system under Lee Teng-hui to an essentially presidential system under Mr. Chen.

The current phase of constitutional reform is in its infancy, with the opposition Pan-Blue alliance preoccupied with “Bulletgate” — investigating the apparent assassination attempt against Mr. Chen on the eve of the March 20 presidential election — and both political camps gearing up for December legislative elections. Mr. Chen said he wants his Pan-Green alliance to retake the legislature.

The Pan-Blue alliance consists of the Kuomintang (KMT), People’s First Party (PFP), and New Party, while the Pan-Green camp refers to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is Mr. Chen’s party, and the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU).

Before the March election, the Pan-Green alliance rallied behind a new constitution — an idea immediately co-opted by the Pan-Blue camp, which fashioned its own proposal. The creation of a new constitution historically is tied to the independence movement and had been criticized for many decades by the KMT, which ruled Taiwan until 2000.

The DPP platform states: Taiwan should “create a new constitution according to the sovereign reality of Taiwan, to establish an independent nation and to change the legal and political system adapted to Taiwanese society, and to return to the international community according to international law.”

The DPP also has advocated holding a national referendum so the people of Taiwan can decide the island’s national status, and in particular to declare independence — a move Beijing has warned would provoke a military assault.

Mr. Chen pledged in his first inaugural address that he would not to use a referendum to resolve the independence-reunification issue. A referendum law enacted last year allowed voters in the 2004 presidential election to decide whether China’s missiles pose a threat to Taiwan’s security.

The Pan-Blue parties, the KMT and PFP, control of 108 of 225 legislative seats, often uniting with 17 independent legislators to form a majority in the legislature. The DPP and TSU have a combined total of 100 seats. Under current conditions, Mr. Chen would need bipartisan support to pass a new constitution.

The shadow of Beijing

Several U.S. scholars have expressed concern about Beijing’s reaction to the proposed new constitution, especially if Mr. Chen veers from his revised constitutional plan in his inaugural address.

If the Pan-Green alliance fails to garner a majority in the legislature, it “could seek to revise the referendum law to enable passage of a new constitution by referendum,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

It would be “the most provocative task that Taiwan can take” and “would lead to renewed friction with the United States … [and] confirm China’s claims that Chen can’t be taken at his word,” Ms. Glaser said.

On the other hand, “If President Chen sticks to his road map, I think Taiwan can strengthen its constitution and avoid provoking Beijing,” she said. “It can win back Washington’s confidence and make Taiwan’s democratic institutions more effective.”

Alan Wachman, associate professor of international politics at Tufts University, said he thinks Beijing is more concerned with Mr. Chen than constitutional reform per se.

“The constitution is not the issue. The reason we are now seeing increased hostility is not because of … the constitution or the revised constitution. The problem, from Beijing’s perspective, is His Eminence Chen Shui-bian,” Mr. Wachman said.

The Beijing leadership has consistently branded Mr. Chen “a troublemaker.” Li Weiyi, spokesman of the Taiwan Affairs Office under China’s State Council, called Mr. Chen’s constitutional plans for 2006 and 2008 a “timetable for independence.”

The political link

Mr. Chen’s promise that a new constitution won’t comment on Taiwan’s national status may be legally correct, said Jacques deLisle, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “But as a political matter, it is very hard to sever that link — and it is impossible now to sever that link, at least in Beijing’s mind.”

Mr. deLisle said the assertions of both Beijing and Taipei on the motives for constitutional reform could prove plausible. On many occasions, Mr. Chen has approached the “red line” and pulled back, as with his comment in August 2002 that China and Taiwan are “separate states on either side of the Taiwan Strait.”

At times, Mr. Chen also seems to be conveying that Taiwan crossed the line when Beijing wasn’t looking, by saying that Taiwan is already an independent, sovereign nation, Mr. deLisle said.

Asked whether a new constitution in 2006 would generate a military conflict with China, 28 percent of Taiwanese respondents said yes, 38 percent said no and 34 percent had no response, according to a June 25-29 survey by Business Weekly, a magazine in Taiwan.

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