Page last updated at 01:15 GMT, Thursday, 30 June 2005 02:15 UK

Taiwan ponders constitutional reform

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Taiwan

Museum worker handles constitution of Republic of China
Taiwan's constitution has never been wholly revised

The constitution of the Republic of China - as Taiwan is officially known - is stored in a wooden box, in a locked glass cabinet in a dark room.

The room lies behind a thick metal door of the kind you would see in a bank vault.

Once I had donned rubber gloves and a mask, I was allowed to leaf through the document, which was written in China and spirited away to Taiwan when the Nationalists lost a civil war with the Communists in 1949.

These precautions are not out of the ordinary for such an important historical text.

But they also hint at the sensitivities around the ongoing struggle between Taiwan and China, especially when it comes to Taiwan's attempts at constitutional reform.

Alarm bells

There have been six rounds of constitutional amendments in the past 10 years, each in response to a specific issue.

However, there has never been a comprehensive re-examination or revision of the constitution.

As Taiwan's government admits in a recently published pamphlet, "although previous amendments have solved some constitutional problems, they have also resulted in more conflicts and deadlocks in the operation of constitutional government".

When President Chen Shui-bian won a second term in office in 2004, he said he wanted to give the people a new constitution that was "timely, relevant and viable".

This rang alarm bells in Washington and in Beijing, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to invade if Taiwan moves towards declaring formal independence.

"[The president] was stopped by US President Bush," says Stephen SF Chen, a former ambassador to Washington and a member of the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalists.

"The Kuomintang [KMT] was opposed to the idea," he says, "but in order not to be branded anti-reformist, the party agreed to a mechanism called a constitutional referendum to be written into the constitution."

This was passed earlier in June. Any future constitutional amendments will now be put to the island's people in a referendum.

Referendum questions

China has again expressed concern about this development, fearing it will make it easier for activists to promote a move towards independence.

Are they right to be worried? Mr Chen thinks not.

Before a constitutional referendum can be called, three quarters of MPs have to hold a vote on the amendment, and three quarters of them have to approve it.

The Chinese worries are unnecessary
Szu-yin Ho
National Chengchi University

"Any move towards independence through this constitutional mechanism would be impossible," he points out, "unless the Pan Blue [the opposition nationalists and their allies] were reduced to a pitiful minority of less than one quarter of the parliament."

Soochow University professor Shiow-duan Hawang says: "The critical point is the Legislative Yuan - the parliament - not the referendum.

"If an amendment is passed by the Legislative Yuan, that will mean that the main parties are in agreement already. As long as the main parties co-operate, they can mobilise the electorate and it won't be too difficult to win a referendum.

"When a different kind of referendum was held the same day as the presidential elections in 2004, it failed because it was opposed by the opposition parties, so their supporters didn't support it."

Szu-yin Ho from the National Chengchi University agrees: "The Chinese worries are unnecessary.

"The high bar will keep any independence proposal at bay, thus reducing the likelihood of war."


This was one of the reasons why one of the smaller parties, the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), opposed the package of constitutional amendments adopted earlier this month.

It repeatedly described the referendum amendment as nothing more than a surrender to Beijing.

The other reason, of course, is that along with the other smaller parties such as the People First Parties, the TSU fears for its survival, after the constitution was amended to halve the number of seats in the Legislative Yuan.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian eats a papaya (15/06/05)
President Chen hopes further reform plans will bear fruit

"Small parties will have no room to survive," says professor Alexander Huang of Tamkang University.

So what kind of constitutional referendums are we likely to see in the months to come?

"There is no timetable," says Mr Huang, "but we expect them to be on the issues of changing the structure of government, for example reducing the branches of government from five to three, and enhancing civil rights."

Indeed, the government has made clear the issues it wants to see debated include strengthening human rights and labour rights, such as the right to organise, to collective bargaining and the right to collective action.

It also wants to lower the voting age to 18 and decide whether to maintain military conscription or adopt a voluntary system of recruitment.

Above all, it says Taiwan has to decide whether it wants a presidential or a parliamentary system of government.

It would like to see the changes put in place by May 2008.

'Symbolic move'

The lack of any consensus on the issues involving national sovereignty, territory and the question of unification versus independence means these issues should be excluded from the agenda during this round of constitutional reform, President Chen Shui-bian has said.

So how important will these referendums be?

It is sovereignty in the hands of the people
Shiow-duan Hawang
Soochow University

"For some people it is more symbolic than anything else," says Soochow University's Mr Hawang. "It is sovereignty in the hands of the people."

Mr Huang agrees. "Referendums will become a tool for direct civil rights practice," he says. "They should not be seen as a bad thing."

The question now, though, is how President Chen will play this in the coming months.

On the one hand, without the support of the opposition for a specific amendment, it will be hard to get it through.

On the other hand, he is a wily politician who will not be allowed to stand again for office under the present constitution. Some analysts fear that with nothing to lose, he may be determined to find some way to push the island further down the road towards independence.

It might not be through the means of a constitutional referendum, but that does not mean he will not try something different.

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