Fri, May 05, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Voting reforms mix good and bad

By Su Yen-tu 蘇彥圖

The new electoral system for Taiwan's legislature is under heavy fire, even though it sailed through the onerous process of constitutional amendment last June with overwhelming popular support.

Progressive optimism seems to have waned. Previously people expected the electoral reform to "clean up the house." Nowadays many fear the coming of a new dark age for Taiwan's democracy.

What would Taiwan's democracy look like under the new electoral rules? Will we see ourselves redeemed? Or doomed?

That the new electoral system may drastically destabilize the status quo in domestic politics is beyond doubt. Its actual consequences, however, are far from predetermined. Much is contingent on how the new system is implemented, and how politicians and voters behave under the new rules of the game.

There are signs of trouble on the horizon, but there are also signs of hope. What we are engaging in is a democratic experiment that requires our vigilance, open-mindedness and, perhaps most importantly, some patience.

Beginning with its next term, the legislature will be composed of 113 members -- only half its current size. Of the members, 73 will be elected from the single-member districts (SMD), 34 will be elected on a party-proportional basis under a system called the "List-PR," and 6 will be representatives from the Aboriginal community.

With the sharp downsizing of the legislature, the full-scale adoption of SMD, and the creation of a separate ballot for party seats, last year's constitutional amendment radically alters the electoral system currently in use.

The reform package can be assessed in light of "governability" and "representativeness," the two main concerns of electoral engineering.

By decreasing the number of legislative seats and raising the electoral threshold in district elections, the new system seeks to create incentives for moderate and responsible politics.

The hope is to select people who are more distinguished and respectable than our incumbent legislators. A pessimistic view, however, suggests that legislative politics will become more parochial if the district elections are driven mainly by local politics.

The List-PR seats may partially counterbalance the majoritarian tendency of the winner-take-all district elections. The List-PR part of the system could facilitate a certain degree of ideological representation. The downside is that legislative politics will become no less polarized, especially if the List-PR seats are occupied mainly by partisan hardliners.

Taken as a whole, the new electoral system might be less proportional -- in terms of the vote-seat relationship -- than its predecessor. The reduction of electoral proportionality is detrimental to the survival or development of minor parties, but the new system arguably still leaves room for more than two party blocs.

Some sort of partisan realignment has already taken place as a reaction to the reform. But the systematic transition also appears to open a window of opportunity for the entry of new parties. It is difficult to predict the short-term impact of the electoral reform on Taiwan's party system.

Also ambiguous is the compatibility of the new semi-PR system and Taiwan's semi-presidential system. The conventional wisdom that proportional representation tends to produce crises of governability in presidential democracies is questionable and cannot be squarely applied to the case of Taiwan. But it is also doubtful to what extent the new system will help reduce the current stalemate or partisan warfare.

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