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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June, 2005, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Taiwan assembly passes changes
National Assembly delegates - 6/6/05
The Assembly has voted for its own dissolution
Taiwan's National Assembly has approved important constitutional changes which supporters say will strengthen the island's democracy.

Future amendments will have to be decided by referendums, which means the Assembly has effectively voted for its own abolition.

The move will alarm China, which fears referendums could be used to edge Taiwan towards formal independence.

Smaller parties are also angry because the changes will reduce their role.

The package of amendments was backed by 248 votes - 23 more than the required three-quarters majority in the 300-member Assembly.

The two largest parties, the Democratic Progressive Party and the main opposition Nationalists, both backed the changes.

But delegates from some other parties held up Tuesday's proceedings, with one holding a banner reading "Absurd constitutional reforms cause troubles for 10,000 years".

The new measures are designed to streamline the way the island is governed, cutting the size of the 225-seat legislature in half.

Under the old electoral system, as many as 10 lawmakers were elected from some Taiwanese constituencies.

The new reforms will cut this number to one delegate elected by voters, and one chosen proportionally according to party affiliation.

The BBC's Taiwan correspondent, Chris Hogg, says independence activists hope the new measures will be a step towards formal statehood for Taiwan - a move that China has warned could lead to war.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province which should be re-united with the mainland.

It fears the new policy of referendums to decide the island's constitutional affairs could enable Taiwan's independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian to fast-track measures that Beijing does not like.

However, analysts point out that the threshold for passing amendments - 50% of the entire electorate, not just those who turn out to vote - is very high, making it difficult to pass any controversial changes.

'Eternal parliament'

The National Assembly was once a powerful body, imported from China as a parliament-in-exile 56 years ago.

Its critics called it "the eternal parliament", with delegates representing constituencies on the mainland to justify a claim by Taiwan's then government, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, that they were the legitimate rulers of all China.

Every six years the National Assembly would rubber stamp the KMT's choice of president.

In return the delegates received generous pay cheques and lived in luxury in government compounds.

The Assembly was substantially weakened when it lost the right to elect Taiwan's leader in 1996, after direct presidential elections were introduced.

Formally disbanded in 2000, it was briefly revived last month to ratify these new constitutional changes.

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