1999 / 10月
Eric Lin /tr. by Mark Caltonhill
In early September, the National Assem-bly passed a contentious amendment to extend its term of office. Public opinion arose en masse, heavily criticizing those assembly members of the KMT and DPP who took leading roles in this constitutional amendment. People felt that the National Assembly was disregarding public will and not respecting the system of democratic constitutional government, and that the deputies were using constitutional reform for their own personal gain. The headquarters of all parties, both in government and opposition, criticized their own deputies. Su Nan-cheng, speaker of the assembly, who supported the pushing through of the term extension, immediately fell victim to KMT discipline and was expelled from the party. What exactly are the arguments behind this constitutional reform?
At four o'clock on the morning of September 5th, the National Assembly passed the third reading of an amendment which included a provision to extend the terms of office for assembly members. Both the KMT and DPP headquarters had publicly declared that their policy was to kill this amendment. Nevertheless, assembly members of both parties evidently turned a deaf ear, uniting to support the strongly voiced leadership of Assembly Speaker Su Nan-cheng, pushing through the amendment to extend members' terms by secret ballot.
The amendment passed by the National Assembly suspended the assembly's election originally set to coincide with the presidential elections on March 18th next year. By tying it to the Legislative Yuan election, the current term of office of national assembly members is extended until the end of the Legislative Yuan's fourth session, that is, the end of June 2002. The amendment also includes provisions that will lower the total number of assembly members in the fourth term to 300, and to 150 for the fifth term, and that change future National Assembly elections to a system of proportional representation in which seats will be allotted to each political party on the basis of the ratio of votes garnered.
Explaining why DPP deputies went against party policy, DPP caucus convenor Chen Chin-der pointed out that his party's policy of abolishing the National Assembly had run into a practical difficulty-the DPP does not have a majority in the assembly. The DPP deputies argue that after the proportional representation system is put into place, the parties will be able to fully control their assembly members and can order the assembly to abolish itself. But the DPP deputies needed the support of the KMT deputies to achieve proportional representation, so they agreed in turn to support the KMT deputies' desire for a term extension. Thus, says Chen, extending the term of office of the current assembly members is a necessary evil.
KMT assembly members claimed that the extension of their term is necessary in order to complete the work of amending the constitution. Assembly Speaker Su Nan-cheng said he did not take a leading role in the discussions, but merely ensured that the assembly's business was enacted in accordance with due process. There are rumors that upper echelons of the Office of the President knew in advance and supported the assembly members' term extension. However, Chang Hsiao-yen, General-Secretary of the KMT, and Su Chih-cheng, director of the secretariat of the Office of the President, both vehemently deny these rumors, pointing out that President Lee Teng-hui's consistent stand against the extension has been completely unequivocal.
The amendment to extend terms of office will allow assembly members to continue their appointments for more than two extra years beyond their original term. This raises serious suspicions among the public that the assemblymen were acting in their own interests. Although it is clear that the DPP deputies only voted for the term extensions because it serves their long-term goal of abolishing the National Assembly, they have also received intense public criticism because their vote went against public and party leaders' opinions, thus contravening the principles of democratic government.
Given that most people think that public disgust with the assembly members' self-interested behavior will certainly influence next March's presidential election, presidential candidates from all parties rushed to express their opposition to the term extension.
Lien Chan of the KMT accused National Assembly members of not truly understanding the public will, said that this amendment was completely different from the KMT's own plans, and expressed deep regret. DPP nominee Chen Shui-bian pointed out that in the future, it may or may not be possible to use the proportionally representative National Assembly to eliminate that body. Gradual accomplishment of the ideals and objectives of reforming the National Assembly will await further observation and require the collective supervision of the whole nation. The other candidates, New Party nominee Li Ao, KMT exile James Soong, and Hsu Hsin-liang, all expressed standpoints of opposition and regret.
In order to clarify their positions, many KMT and DPP assembly members have said that after the completion of their original terms next year, they will cease collecting all or some of the money that an assembly member is entitled to receive and will support whatever remedial measures are necessary to accommodate public desires. Knowing that being an assembly member is an honorary position with no salary but only expenses and allowances for assistants and workers, some sceptics suggest that only a written statement outlining which monies will not be collected, and over what period, will have any substantial meaning.
The New Party caucus expressed its opposition to the term extension and its assembly members abstained in the vote. As of September 7th, except for a minority who announced they would resign their posts as assembly members, the majority of New Party assembly deputies were inclined not to resign their present posts after May next year (the original term deadline), but felt they ought to continue their work (they also decided to continue to accept their subsidy payments, arguing that they would be unable to function without them).
In response to resounding public criticism, the central offices of the main parties whose assembly members joined ranks to amend the constitution are both considering invoking party discipline to punish those members who did not heed party wishes but forced through the amendment on extended terms. The KMT disciplinary committee on September 7th quickly and unanimously passed the most severe penalty of party expulsion on National Assembly Speaker Su Nan-cheng. As Su is an appointed, rather than elected, assembly member, expulsion from the party means that he simultaneously loses the post of assembly speaker and of assembly member.
Su Nan-cheng says that he did not lead the term-extension amendment, but that his official duties require that he ensure that the assembly's business be enacted in accordance with correct procedures. The KMT central office wanted him to engage in what he called malpractice and he said he would not consent. After all, it was not necessary for KMT assembly members to cast affirmative votes for term-extension, so singling him out to shoulder responsibility for the outcome is really going too far.
Although this was a heavy punishment, it only affected one individual. In practice, the National Assembly term extension has already been enacted. In light of this, the KMT advocates requesting the Council of Grand Justices to make a final interpretation on the constitutional issues arising from this problem. The DPP advocates holding a national referendum on the issue of abolishing the National Assembly, and proposes convening a provisional session of the assembly to enact the constitutional changes allowing for referenda. The New Party's solution is to allow the Legislative Yuan to block the National Assembly's constitutional amendment, and then convene a provisional session of the assembly to make a final decision.
The whole country anxiously waits to see how this controversy regarding constitutional government and traditions might be calmed. However it is resolved, the electorate will use their votes in next March's presidential elections to examine the wisdom of the leaders of the different parties.
Citizens were outraged by the National Assembly decision to extend its own term. The photo shows a march organized by the New Party. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)