Fri, Jan 20, 2012 - Page 8 News List

The 5% threshold should be abolished

By Huang Juei-min 黃瑞明

The legislative elections held many surprises, not least that the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and the People First Party (PFP) passed the 5 percent threshold and so were each allocated two legislator-at-large seats in addition to the three legislative seats they won from constituency votes. However, nobody is talking about how ridiculous this system is.

The two-vote system originated in Germany. First used after World War II, the first vote went to the candidate, the second to the party. The Bundestag (the German parliament) also set a 5 percent threshold that political parties had to achieve before they could be allocated seats. There are good historical reasons for this. During the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, there were numerous small parties that the government needed to cut deals with, placing disproportionate bargaining power in their hands. German politics was consequently quite chaotic. This situation facilitated Adolf Hitler’s rise, leading Germany and the rest of Europe to the brink of destruction. This threshold contributed to the political stability in Germany so important for the country’s post-war development.

This system has been a major influence on the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution. During the 2004 National People’s Congress, a constitutional amendment was made, to the effect that seats for legislators-at-large and overseas compatriot members are allocated among political parties with more than 5 percent of the total party votes, proportional to the number of votes received. If this threshold is not reached, any vote received for that party is a wasted vote. This was the case for the New Party in the past election. If it were not for this threshold, their 3.95 percent vote would have secured them a seat.

Five percent is a significantly high threshold for a small party. The Germans set it so high because they have a cabinet system of government, in which the government is a coalition of political parties controlling more than 50 percent of seats between them. Having too many small parties risks the aforementioned consequences. Taiwan, on the other hand, has a presidential system, which is entirely different. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) won election twice and he remained in power for two whole terms despite his party having a minority in the legislature. It had no effect on how the Cabinet operated. This is clearly a case of blind imitation.

Put bluntly, our 5 percent threshold clause is the product of complicity by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to divide the electoral spoils between themselves. They can easily abolish it, but have conspired to keep the small parties out. Small parties causing havoc with governments have never been a problem here. The real issue is how the two major parties have gotten into bed with big business.

The PFP and TSU are small parties. They crossed the threshold this time, but how about next time? Purely in their own interest, they should try to engineer another constitutional amendment. It is important they do, for the sake of diversity in Taiwanese democracy.

The threshold is but one factor contributing to the unfair and unjust nature of the electoral system. According to DPP caucus whip Tsai Huang-liang (蔡煌瑯), when the legislature reconvenes, the party will propose a constitutional amendment to address the failings of the single-member district system and the phenomenon that not every vote cast is of equal value. This is worth debating, but the DPP ought to be addressing the threshold clause.

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