Despite the controversies and criticism, it is undeniable that independent Taipei mayor-elect Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) idea of allowing the public to endorse and vote for his Department of Labor director is an innovative experiment worth some recognition in the history of the nation’s democracy.
As part of his promise to have an open and transparent government with public participation, Ko announced during his campaign that if he won, instead of unilaterally appointing city officials, he would invite the public to recommend or endorse candidates for most department leadership roles and would organize committees to review qualifications and interview the candidates.
Even more adventurously, Ko added that the public would vote to choose the heads of certain departments from finalists selected by the committees.
While astonished by the innovative system, the public was quick to discover shortcomings and defects in its design: The makeup of committee members and the standards that they would use to pick finalists came under immediate fire, with many questioning the fairness and transparency of the proposal.
The public also expressed concerns about Ko’s office not verifying the identities of people who registered to vote online and having no way to prevent fraud in online voting.
Regardless of the controversies, Ko insisted on advancing his “experiment in direct democracy,” while also compromising by limiting the i-voting system only to the selection of the labor department director.
In the end, i-voting proceeded smoothly on Sunday, resulting in the election of labor rights advocacy group Raging Citizens Act Now secretary-general Lai Hsiang-ling (賴香伶) to head the labor department.
Ko told reporters that he had plowed head with the i-voting system, despite feeling frustrated on occasion by the criticism, because he believes that voters supported him in the mayoral race due to his promises to bring about new ideas and change. He would be no different from conventional politicians if he became reluctant about i-voting due to criticism, Ko said.
The i-voting system and the selection committees are new ideas and it was inevitable that there would be problems. However, if the nation always clings to conventional ways of handling public issues — thinking: “This might not be perfect, but it is good enough” — society and the nation’s young democracy will never progress.
There have always been pioneers in democracy who were brave enough to be trailblazers and there have always been others who might not necessarily oppose new ideas, but who remain skeptical.
During the Martial Law era, many Taiwanese thought that ending the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) authoritarian regime was impossible, but thanks to those dreamers who risked their lives the era ended in 1987. Later, some Taiwanese feared that the direct election of the president would only bring about chaos and did not think that the government would allow it. However, less than a decade after the end of martial law, the nation held its first direct presidential election.
The selection of city and municipal officials through popular votes or committees is a similar story.
Sure there were problems, but if the system were never put into practice, the nation would never know whether it could work, and problems would go unnoticed without a chance to examine the system and improve it.
The system might not be completely transparent, but it is better than having the mayor or the elite few around him handpick officials.
Compared with the lives lost and people jailed for decades in the battle for democracy, the price Taiwan and Taipei pay for Ko’s “experiment in direct democracy” is minimal and definitely worth trying.
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