Mon, Oct 15, 2007 - Page 8 News List

On the path to a better democracy

By Lin Kuo-ming 林國明

Bickering political parties that pursue partisan goals have left the public frustrated, disappointed and increasingly apathetic toward politics. There is, however, a way to stop this ineffective style of politics. As argued in the Chinese-language China Times article "Politics abandoned" recently, "only the development of civil society can stop the vicious political cycle."

Conferences and other activities organized by civic groups have become increasingly common since 2004, allowing the public to participate in the debate about politics, in the hope that the nation's democracy will improve through engaging the public.

Government organizations have held conferences on such diverse issues as surrogate motherhood, the national health insurance system, tax reform, the Maokong cable car system, water resource management, environmental protection and labor rights.

In addition to the public debate on national and municipal issues, civic groups are encouraging progressive activities in local communities.

Networks of academics, educational institutions and local organizations are holding conferences in cities as well as in the countryside.

Recent conferences have been held in Keelung, Ilan, Beitou (北投), Neihu (內湖), Banciao (板橋), Sanchong (三重), Danshui (淡水), Tainan and Pingtung.

This collaborative network brings together civil society, expands public participation in deliberative democracy to local communities, and diversifies its possibilities.

In the past, conferences on social and political issues were only held to discuss controversial issues.

However, local organizations have begun holding a variety of workshops, forums and debates on a variety of topics.

Even tough identity issues and cross-strait relations are being discussed by the public. Both the 2005 county commissioner and mayoral elections and last year's Taipei mayoral election employed deliberative TV debates in which the public could ask the candidates questions.

The development of civil society is causing the concept of "deliberative" democracy to grow. At the same time, it raises many questions, mostly in regard to conferences sponsored by the government.

The public should ask whether the participants at those conferences are qualified to represent public opinion.

There are many misunderstandings regarding forums and other similar activities. Many conferences have panels with less than 20 participants; they do not necessarily represent the range of opinions in the community they are discussing or the nation. They may differ greatly in terms of educational background, occupation and ethnicity.

But instead of focusing on whether they represent the community demographically, we should pay attention to their ability to reflect public opinion. We should look at whether or not their deliberation reflects the different stances, interests and values of the community.

Panelists do not make policy decisions. Public participation in deliberative democracy is meant to correct the shortcomings of representative democracy by allowing citizens the chance to influence policy-making actively.

The formation of public policy should incorporate public opinion through rational discussion and communication, but civil society cannot replace the role of the legislature and administration to create policies and implement them.

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