On Jan. 14, the nation will hold two critical elections — presidential and legislative — combined on the same day. The hotly contested presidential election has grabbed most people’s attention, making the choice of legislators seem like a side issue. However, the truth is that our constitutional system is a semi-presidential one. The president and the legislature work much like the wings of a bird — both are of equal importance.
The experience of the past three years shows how undesirable it is to have one party holding a great majority of seats in the legislature and it tells us that this situation should not be allowed to continue. Another problem is that legislators have become akin to local councilors and their policymaking performance has deteriorated. However, these two trends can only be reversed through the conscious decisions made by voters at the upcoming polls.
The previous legislative election, in which the members of the current legislature were elected, was held in January 2008. It was the first election in Taiwan to employ the system of single-member constituencies, with each voter having two votes — one for their local representative and one for a party. At the same time, the number of seats in the legislature was slashed from 225 to 113.
Features of the new system include small constituencies, twin-ballot voting and a difference in the value of each vote in different areas because of varying district sizes. The combined effect of these features led to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) taking 81 seats, or nearly three-quarters of the total, while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won only 38 seats, or less than a quarter of the total number, even though it received 38.17 percent of votes cast for legislators and 36.9 percent of the total party vote.
This has prevented the DPP from effectively performing its function as a check and balance on the KMT government.
The KMT then went on to win the March 2008 presidential election by a margin of more than 2 million votes. As a result, the KMT has dominated both the legislature and the executive branch for nearly four years. The KMT government has acted in a dictatorial fashion and the legislature has been reduced to little more than a rubber stamp. So much harm has been done to Taiwan’s democracy and the quality of its legislature that it might take many years to set things right.
The original intention of reforming the electoral system by adopting single-member constituencies with voters casting two ballots was to remedy the faults of the previous system, such as widespread vote buying and extremist positions taken by candidates in order to get elected. That was the theory, but things have worked out rather differently in practice.
The KMT is one of the world’s richest political parties and with so much money kicking around, vote buying has continued under the new system. In fact, some people say that if you don’t buy votes, you won’t get elected. Not long after the 2008 elections, a string of elected KMT lawmakers were indicted for vote buying. Having been found guilty, they lost their seats and went to jail, as a result of which a series of by-elections had to be held to fill the seats they had left vacant.
The benefits of the new system have not been as great as was hoped and it has created quite a few new problems as well. For example, the system has eliminated small and newly emerging parties from the legislature, depriving them of a prominent platform and leaving the full variety of public opinion with no way of being fully expressed.