With legislative and presidential elections scheduled for the end of this year and March next year, the government has made the case for a merger of the two important votes, arguing that holding them separately, as is mandated under the prevailing system, imposes too heavy a burden on the national coffers.
Although cost-saving measures and convenience for the public are hard to argue against, we should not lose sight of the benefits of the current system, however unwieldy and costly it may be.
The principal advantage of staggered presidential and legislative elections is that it increases the frequency by which the public can impose checks on the executive. Optimally, legislative polls should be held halfway through a presidential term, which would give the public enough time to assess the effectiveness of the government’s policies and, with their vote, adjust legislative checks (restraints) on or support for the executive.
Conversely, if the two elections were to be held simultaneously, the public would have to wait a full four years before it could use its vote to express support for or opposition to the executive and thereby ensure that the appropriate correctives are made.
Imperfect though it may be, the parliamentary system creates a balance of power in government by imposing restraints on the Cabinet, which is healthy for democracy. Granted, for the legislature to fully play its role as a check on the executive, it should be comprised of a substantial number of seats from the opposition, which isn’t the case at the moment. Although, as we saw during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration, a strong opposition in the legislature can create gridlock, the opposite is equally, if not more, detrimental to democracy. When, as is the case at present, a party has the majority in the executive and the legislature, we risk seeing the emergence of governance without checks and balances, which is a dangerous step toward authoritarianism.
By retaining a staggered system for the presidential and legislative elections, a country can ensure that every two years or so, voters can impose the necessary correctives to ensure that the government system does not swing too far in one direction or the other, avoiding parliament becoming either a rubber-stamp or a paralyzing element.
It is ironic that Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), discussing government plans to increase the salaries of public servants earlier this week, argued that a decision on the matter should not be affected by fears of its impact on the national debt. By Wu’s logic, it would seem that in saving money, not all things are equal, and that giving government employees a 3 percent pay raise is more important than ensuring the health of the nation’s democratic system.
Supporters of the merger of the presidential and legislative elections argue that the move would save the nation about NT$470 million (US$16.21 million). Meanwhile, a 3 percent pay raise for public servants would impose an estimated NT$22 billion burden on state finances every year.
This is not to say that public servants are not entitled to a salary raise, but to make the case for merged elections based solely on a financial argument — and this has been the government’s main selling point — sounds dishonest.
Given its likely deleterious impact on the quality of Taiwan’s democratic system, the decision whether to merge the presidential and legislative elections is one that should not be taken lightly. The maintenance of a responsible and responsive democratic apparatus should not be sacrificed for economic considerations.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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