Wed, Sep 26, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Trading votes for public service

By Wang Hsing-chi 王醒之

Keelung Mayor Chang Tong-rong (張通榮) recently caused a hullabaloo after it was revealed he had visited a police station on Sept. 14 and asked the police to release a woman who was believed to be drunk and who had allegedly punched and injured a police officer. Chang tried to justify his intervention on the grounds that he was “providing a service to voters.” His excuse will probably not resolve the political crisis he has stirred up, but it does reveal the state of grassroots democracy that has prevailed in the country ever since all seats in the legislature were made open to election, ie, everything will be fine as long as you have connections.

Still more worth thinking about is why Chang would think that his claim that he was “providing a service to voters” would be a sufficient justification for what he did. What kind of mainstream political environment does this reflect?

Although we get to be “masters for a day” when we exercise our right to vote once every couple of years, nobody would deny that we are politically disadvantaged compared with the politicians who walk the corridors of power. All kinds of things in ordinary people’s lives are covered by “service to voters,” including arrangements and banners for weddings and funerals, dealing with administrative penalties, public procurement, unemployed workers, staff appointments, emergency relief, welfare supplements, applications for low-income household status and even buying hard-to-get train tickets to visit one’s hometown on public holidays. This situation makes politicians into a kind of political tout or agent, roaming in a quasi-legal gray area of pulling strings and twisting arms.

Consequently, votes in elections for councilors and borough wardens have long since been devalued into a game of fill-in-the-blanks for disadvantaged voters, rather than a chance to vote for reform and distinguish between candidates’ political orientation. People tend to vote for whichever candidate will provide the most effective service, and in so doing they forfeit their political rights. Rather than reflecting voters’ political wishes, it would be more accurate to say that this outcome is what the politically disadvantaged get in return for finding some relief from their worries about getting by.

Considering the powers that politicians have and the things common people need to survive, who wouldn’t want to have a political connection or two to rely on? Who would be so brazen as to claim that he or she has no need of “service to voters?” Under such circumstances, a vote is like an insurance policy, and the whole arrangement constitutes a “political service industry” that encompasses both politicians and their “election brokers” — the grassroots supporters who drum up votes for them. Such is the business model that allows the likes of Chang and most other politicians to stand firm and unshakeable in their elected positions.

This logic that thrives on disadvantaged people’s anxiety and dependence is a mechanism that members of the ruling class have connived in setting up, and whose benefits they share among themselves. This is true of the pan-blue and pan-green parties alike, and it has become a new bottleneck on the road to grassroots political reform. The anxiety that the politically disadvantaged feel and their worries about the risks they face in life are often directly connected with repressive aspects of the system that need a complete and thorough overhaul.

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