Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) recently pledged that he would push to initiate a constitutional amendment process in this legislative session. He said that amending the Constitution would be very difficult and that, with the exception of a proposal to lower the voting age to 18, it would not be easy to build a public consensus on each item.
The problem with You’s remarks is that they could mislead the public into believing that the legislature can complete constitutional amendments by itself, and that the main problem simply lies in the difficulty of reaching a consensus.
For many years, I have repeatedly reminded people that although the Legislative Yuan has become the sole agency in charge of constitutional amendments after the abolition of the National Assembly as a result of the seventh round of constitutional amendments, the National Assembly’s power to ratify constitutional amendments was transferred to the public, who now do so in referendums.
According to the Central Election Commission database, the results of elections at all levels show that the threshold for a constitutional amendment stated in the Additional Articles of the Constitution (憲法增修條文) is too high.
The logic is simple and the evidence is clear. Take the presidential election this year, for example: According to the additional articles, after a constitutional amendment is approved by the legislature, it can be ratified via referendum if the number of valid votes in favor exceeds half of the total number of voters. Given the total number of people eligible to vote in the presidential election this time, the threshold for passing a constitutional amendment is more than 9.65 million votes.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) set a record by garnering 8.17 million votes in her re-election bid, but that was still 1.48 million short of the number required for an amendment.
How could the number of votes in favor of an amendment possibly exceed those for the winning presidential candidate? Unlike presidential elections, referendums on public affairs are unlikely to ignite passion or trigger a high degree of mobilization.
This is the case in most other countries. For example, the UK, an advanced democracy: The 2016 Brexit referendum was passed 51 percent to 49 percent. Surprisingly, after the referendum, the question “What is Brexit?” topped Google searches in the UK, showing that many British were unaware of the consequences of the vote or even what it really meant. They voted blindly, following their feelings, and then regretted their choice.
Compared with the Brexit referendum, Taiwan’s constitutional reform project is even more complex. What is the purpose of pushing for a series of amendments when among them only the call to lower the voting age has a consensus? Is the government trying to curry favor with first-time voters? Such arbitrary procedures to push for a myriad of amendments would only complicate matters.
One symptom of the problems with the Constitution was highlighted in the 2008 legislative election when Taiwan adopted the Japanese-style single-district, two-vote system. The pan-blue camp won 75 percent of the legislative seats with just 56 percent of the national vote. The results were a distortion of public opinion.
Tsai should stop this political farce of pushing for constitutional amendments that are doomed to fail. Instead, she should establish a preparatory constitutional committee answerable to the Presidential Office and invite experts to draft a new constitution. The new constitution should avoid talk of independence and unification, focusing instead on fixing constitutional problems once and for all.
Christian Fan Jiang is a political commentator.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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