Mon, May 20, 2002 - Page 8 News List

More to democracy than elections

By Gary Rawnsley

Taiwan's electoral system has recently been the target of critical assessment, suggesting that it is in urgent need of reform. How-ever, there is no sign of a consensus in the foreseeable future about the scope and character of any changes that might take place. Several proposals have been tabled for discussion, but these have not addressed the underlying problem, namely the anachronistic single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system in multi-member constituencies that is used to elect representatives to the Legislative Yuan.

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has proposed that the legislature should be smaller and the term of office for lawmakers should be extended from three to four years. This is a welcome initiative -- one of Taiwan's many weaknesses is its electoralism. It plagues Taiwan like an uncontrollable rash. By electoralism, I mean the way many in Taiwan -- voters, politicians and the media -- associate democracy with elections. The logic is simple: the more elections a political system has, the more democratic it must be. Taiwan has more elections than any political system other than the US and Switzerland, so therefore it must be a democracy.

One of the many challenges facing the new Taiwan is the realization that democracy is about more than elections; it is as much about the quality of governance, as the quantity of opportunities to express a popular opinion through the ballot box. Extending the legislative term is a step in the right direction, for it will reduce the need for lawmakers to engage in campaigning for the next election as soon as they assume office. The permanent campaign is the scourge of modern representative democracies and does not make for rational, sensible government that must sometimes defy popular opinion to get things done.

On their own, however, these changes are cosmetic. Lengthening the term that legislators serve will not help offset the deep-rooted problems of corruption, vote-buying and pork-barrel faction-led politics that characterize local elections. Making the legislature smaller will help, for this means that constituencies will be bigger. This should, all things being equal, reduce the power of faction leaders and vote-brokers.

However, the solution to many of these problems is reform of the electoral system itself. SNTV devalues voter choice based on party preference, and instead encourages decisions based on other criteria to distinguish between candidates.

In Taiwan, one such criterion may be personal connection, or mobilization via patron-client relationships. In local-level elections especially, voters assign considerable value to personal contact between candidate and voter, and between voter and vote-broker, not least because such contact facilitates the declining practice of vote-buying.

Another proposal, mandatory voting, is unnecessary. The turnout rates in Taiwan's elections are remarkable and are the envy of more mature democracies, particularly given the frequency with which voters are expected to cast their ballots. However, voting is a civil right, not a duty, as Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) has pointed out.

Mandatory voting will not solve any of Taiwan's present problems; if anything it will exacerbate popular dissatisfaction with the political system. Studies of countries that enforce voting have found that while turnout does increase, it does not resolve the deeper problems regarding the quality of political participation. Instead, it simply intensifies apathetic attitudes, encourages disinterest and lengthens the distance between politicians and voters. Aren't spoiled ballots as worthless as no ballot at all?

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