Taiwan needs direct presidential elections, too

LAST year, Taiwan's southern neighbor, the Philippines, overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos through a popular presidential election. On July 1 of this year, Taiwan's northern neighbor, South Korea - after three weeks of fierce street fights between riot police and students in major cities - finally decided to let its people directly elect their next president. In light of these new developments in the Pacific region, it is time to call for direct presidential elections in Taiwan. Since its retreat from China in 1949, the Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling party in Taiwan, has continued to proclaim itself the sole legitimate government of China; its fundamental policy is the recovery of the Chinese mainland. Thus, political institutions established in China in 1947 are all maintained in Taiwan. Members of the National Assembly, whose major function is to elect the president of Taiwan once every six years, were elected by the people on the Chinese mainland four decades ago and still remain in office in Taiwan today.

According to the Constitution, there are 3,136 members of the National Assembly. Because of the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists, only 2,841 members were actually elected in November 1947. Two years after the election, the KMT was defeated by the Communists and 1,576 members came to Taiwan, while the rest either remained on the Chinese mainland or went abroad. Through a 1954 interpretation of the Constitution by Taiwan's rubber-stamp supreme court, these members have lifetime tenure.

At present, because of natural deaths, the number of Assembly members has decreased to 984. Nine hundred of them (or 91 percent), including those who replaced the deceased members, have a life term. Only 84 members (or 9 percent) are periodically elected by the people on Taiwan through a complicated, inequitable system of occupational, gender, and area representations. The argument often made by the KMT to justify the methods employed to retain and select Assembly members is not tenable, for the following elements:

Original representatives (498 in number, or 51 percent). It is false to argue that these original members still represent the Chinese people on the mainland. The people who elected them 40 years ago are now at least 60 years old and constitute less than 5 percent of the present-day Chinese population. In addition, since 1949 the KMT has cut off communication with the Chinese mainland, so these legislators could hardly know the wishes of their ``constituents'' on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, most members are more than 80 years old and in poor health. It is physically difficult, if not impossible, for them to assume legislative responsibilities.

Replacing representatives (402 in number, or 41 percent). When an original member dies, the candidate from his district who lost the election in 1947 is selected to replace the deceased member with lifetime tenure. The number of votes a replacement received was so low that he does not even represent the small percentage of mainlanders his predecessor claimed to represent. For example, Mao Song-nien, the former ambassador from Taiwan to Tokyo, lost his election to Wang Chu-wan by receiving only 2,500 votes, but last year, when Wang died, Mao replaced him as an Assembly member.

Occupational representation (16 in number, or 1.6 percent). Today, no major democratic government uses this system, by which members of various occupational groups elect their own congressmen. The KMT chose this electoral system largely because it tightly controls occupational associations and can thus send more representatives to the Assembly.

This system, however, violates the one-man, one-vote rule. One and a half million members of occupational groups elect 16 representatives, while 10 million citizens of Taiwan who do not belong to any occupational association elect only 61 members. The ratio between voters and representatives for occupational groups is twice as high as that for the people not belonging to any occupational group. Such an unequal representation was declared unconstitutional in the United States when, in 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that ``as nearly as possible'' congressional districts must be so drawn that district populations are approximately equal.

Gender representatives (7 in number, or 0.7 percent). The Chinese Women's Association, founded by Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, is highly supportive of the KMT. With a membership of a quarter million, it elects seven representatives - a ratio twice as high as the disproportional occupational ratio. This again violates the one-man, one-vote rule.

Area representatives (61 in number, or 6 percent). Area representation in Taiwan's elections is closer to the democratic principle than any previously discussed approach. Unfortunately, the election law prevents candidates from launching effective campaigns. For example, the use of mass media is prohibited, and the candidate is allowed to campaign for only 15 days in a district with a population of several million - a far cry from the free and fair campaign characterizing congressional elections in the US.

From the above analysis, it is clear that the National Assembly is now atrophied and unrepresentative. Both its members and the president they elect represent neither China nor Taiwan. Unless the existing system of indirect elections of the president by the Assembly is changed to direct elections by the people on Taiwan, there will be no democracy and representative government on the island.

Trong R. Chai is professor of political science at the City University of New York.

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