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Assessing Taiwan’s Semi-presidentialism: A Within-case Comparison through the Lens of State Capacity


The Republic of China (ROC) government was transformed into a semi-presidential (SP) system after the 1997 ROC Constitutional Amendments. This constitutional framework has been subject to criticisms for creating a powerful but unaccountable presidency in president-parliamentary congruence (SP majority regime), a political stalemate between the executive and legislative branches in president-parliamentary incongruence (SP minority regime), and an incapable government regardless which political party is in power. My research examines the validity of these criticisms by empirically studying the Presidential (executive)-legislative relationship of variations in ROC’s semi-presidentialism (independent variable), namely, SP majority and minority regimes, and its impact on the nation’s governance, specifically through the lens of state capacity (dependent variable), from mid-1997 to early 2018. My research methods include hypothesis testing and a power-law analysis. I also build linear regression models to explore if there is a correspondence between trends in approval ratings of the President, the Premier, and his Cabinet in Taiwan and variations in state capacity in the ROC SP regimes over the past twenty-odd years, respectively. Four salient, alternative dimensions of state capacity are examined in this study: extractive/fiscal capacity, (domestic) coercive/(external) military capacity, administrative/bureaucratic capacity (with a focus on policy coherence/continuity), and legal capacity (with a focus on legislative productivity).

This study uses Taiwan’s over two decades of SP experience to test (i.e., confirm or falsify) the conventional wisdom that governance in president-parliamentary congruence is considered more effective than that in president-parliamentary incongruence. The research findings show that the SP majority/minority government division may not be associated with overall state capacity (detected by chi-squared tests). Whereas it makes some differences in serveral dimensions of state capacity, the KMT/DPP rule division would not necessarily affect state capacity, or have effects limited to only legal capacity and performance of coercive capacity. More specifically, the SP majority regime outperforms its minority counterpart, as hypothetically expected and unexpected, respectively, in fiscal capacity (when measured with changes made by the Legislature to annual general budgets, either in revenue or expenditure) and military capacity (when measured with the natural log of defense budgets in expenditure per capita), amidst long-standing Communist Chinese threats to Taiwan. By contrast, both institutional and party divisions affect legal capacity, but not in the direction expected. Similarly, high frequencies, or power-law distributions of Cabinet official changes (reflective of administrative/bureaucratic capacity) are found in both SP majority and minority regimes (even after the party factor was accounted for), although the latter more evidently followed a self-organized criticality behavior. The institutional factor affects coercive capacity only when it is measured by its performance (violent crime rates per 100,000 population), rather than its capacity per se. The findings also reveal that variations in state capacity in the ROC SP regimes were barely reflected, if at all, in job approval ratings of the President and the Premier and not reflected for the Cabinet in Taiwan.

These statistical results are synthetically interpreted with two different perspectives, namely of leadership and political culture, based on inputs from my semi-structured interviews with a few leading politicians and senior political journalists in Taiwan. Between my statistical analysis and the interviews, this study tries to build up a complicated but convincing picture of twenty years of governance under the new constitutional arrangements. It seems, for the time being, Taiwan’s experience has cast doubt on, if not falsified, the conventional wisdom that governance in president-parliamentary congruence is better than that in president-parliamentary incongruence.

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