A few days ago the legislature’s Internal Administration Committee discussed amendments to the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法). One of the items up for discussion was lowering the threshold for state subsidies for political parties. The law says a party must obtain at least 5 percent of the total vote in national elections to qualify for a subsidy. Legislators have proposed reducing this threshold to between 1 percent and 2 percent. On the morning of the committee meeting, opposition legislators, representatives of small parties and pro-reform civic groups held a press conference calling for an even lower 0.5 percent threshold, which Germany uses.
The reason subsidies are given to political parties is to ensure they do not become over dependent on specific donors, which could cause them to focus on policies that favor minority interests instead of the interests of the nation as a whole.
In Germany, for example, the threshold for parties to win party-list seats in parliament, ie, through proportional representation, is for them to receive 5 percent of party votes across the nation. This is the same level as in Taiwan, but Germany’s subsidies threshold is 0.5 percent.
The reason for this lower threshold is to give small parties that have not won any seats sufficient resources to go on functioning and compete with the big parties. This gives such parties a chance to grow or recover and enables them to oversee policies from the sidelines. This is what has enabled Germany’s Greens, which advocate ecologically sound policies, and the Pirate Party, which is opposed to intellectual property rights that favor corporations, to gradually make gains in elections and stand against corporate-backed politicians. As a result, these smaller parties have been able to promote numerous reforms that have changed Germany and influenced the world.
In contrast, Taiwan only gives subsidies to parties if they win seats, which is rather like throwing life rings to people who have already swum to shore. The small parties are left to drown.
The reason small parties are small is because they do not have enough resources to market themselves to the public. In addition, the low number of votes they win in elections is often the result of tactical voting, not because few people support their political views.
Taiwan’s main parties receive more than NT$500 million (US$16.92 million) a year in subsidies, but they just get spent the next time there is an election. If the vote threshold for subsidies were lowered to 1 percent, the state would only have to spend an extra NT$30 million a year, and if it were set at 0.5 percent, the extra outlay would be just NT$40 million. Either way, it would be an insignificant amount compared with the largesse the big parties receive.
Of course this still constitutes an increase in government expenditure. However, if small parties can use their subsidies to keep themselves afloat, oversee government policy and maybe eventually win seats, then they will be able to keep fighting against the big parties that receive corporate donations. That would allow them to promote demands that are more progressive than those endorsed by the big parties and help improve people’s lives.
Small parties can also keep an eye on how taxes are spent. Last year the legislature approved the the central government budget totaling NT$1.9 trillion. With the the big parties dominating, it only cut NT$130 million.