HONG KONG — Although Taiwan’s lat est constitutional reforms preclude any declaration of formal independence for the foreseeable future, they do strengthen Taiwan’s democratic development.

The latest changes were ushered in as the National Assembly of the Republic of China on Taiwan was elected one last time May 14 and then voted out of existence June 7. Formed under the 1947 ROC Constitution, the Assembly had dutifully given Chiang Kai-shek the veneer of legitimacy for decades by regularly re-electing him ROC president.

Once Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo initiated profound changes in the texture of Taiwan politics, the National Assembly switched roles — from sustaining authoritarianism to gradually introducing democracy. Under then-Kuomintang chairman and Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui during the 1990s, the National Assembly passed six successive rounds of reform amendments to the 1947 Constitution. The most important was in 1996 — the election of the head of government by universal suffrage.

After 2000, the National Assembly was no longer a standing body. But when a seventh round of constitutional changes was approved by Taiwan’s Parliament, the Legislative Yuan, last August, a final brief session became necessary to pass these changes and to provide a legal channel through which the Constitution could be amended in future.

Since this package of constitutional reforms had passed the Legislative Yuan with the support of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Kuomintang, its passage through the 300-member Assembly was never in doubt. There were four main changes:

(1) Taiwan abandoned the practice of electing the 225-member Legislative Yuan in a few large multimember seats, part of its inheritance from Japanese colonialism. It will now be elected in 73 constituencies, each of which will return one member on a first-past-the-post basis. Every voter will also vote from proportional representation lists; 40 members of Parliament will be elected this way. Thus a future Legislative Yuan will have 113 members, half as many as today.

The DPP and the KMT supported this reform on the assumption that the new voting system, particularly the single-member seats, will favor the bigger, better-organized parties. Conversely, smaller parties, such as the Taiwan Solidarity Union and the People First Party, opposed the change, believing that it would put them at a disadvantage. It probably will. They might win a few seats in the proportional representation, though.

It is hoped that the changes will eradicate corrupt practices, diminish vote-buying, force political parties to compete more over policy and reduce political extremism. If, as expected, these changes enhance the development of a two-party system, future elections will be won or lost in competition over the moderate center of the Taiwan political spectrum.

But some observers fear that with the size of Parliament halved each MP will have to represent an average of 320,000 Taiwanese — a potentially onerous role in a society where citizens are increasingly pushing their own interests.

(2) The term of the Legislative Yuan has been extended from three to four years. The present chamber will stay in office until 2008, when the next presidential and parliamentary elections are both held. This reform has been justified as reducing the frequency of elections, but its main result will be political. With the presidency and Parliament subject to the same political mood among the electorate, a president now has a better chance of winning a majority in Parliament.

(3) There is a change in the rules of impeachment of the president and vice president. The initial impeachment resolution will require a simple Legislative Yuan majority, while passage will need two-thirds. The issue is then decided by the Taiwan equivalent of a Supreme Court, the Council of Grand Justices. If the Council approves the resolution, the official is immediately removed from office.

(4) Since the National Assembly will no longer be the arbiter of constitutional change, people exercising their universal suffrage will have the last word. Any future changes in the ROC Constitution will first require the support of one-quarter of the Legislative Yuan before they can be introduced and the support of three-quarters before they can pass.

Within six months, the changes must be placed before the people in a referendum. The changes will be approved only if more than half of all Taiwanese eligible voters, not just half, consent to them. Thus a voter turnout of 70 percent would have to be nearly unanimous in favor of the changes.

This reform, in effect, freezes Taiwan’s constitutional position very close to public opinion. According to a recent opinion poll, a little under one-fifth of Taiwanese favor independence, while a little under one-eighth of Taiwanese favor reunification. As in the past, the overwhelming majority favor continuation of the status quo.

Still, the DPP government does intend to push for another round of constitutional reform before President Chen Shui-bian leaves office, though it insists that it “will not touch on such sensitive issues as sovereignty, the national title, territorial boundaries, or independence from or unification with China, as there is no public consensus on these issues.”

Instead, the second round of reform sought by the DPP concerns domestically contentious issues such as lowering the voting age to 18, improving protection of human rights, sustaining military conscription and maintaining what remains of the Taiwan provincial government. Most important, the aim is to choose between a presidential or a parliamentary form of government, rather than continue with an awkward mix.

For the time being, Taiwanese political energies will be consumed by another fierce controversy — how to set the new boundaries and avoid gerrymandering for those 73 single-seat constituencies.

So, as the ROC National Assembly dies, the Taiwan-ROC polity is coming alive, is evolving, and is enhancing the island’s democracy — which is the real reason why Beijing objects to each constitutional reform.

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