Tue, Apr 07, 2015 - Page 3 News List

INTERVIEW: ‘Democracy must engage the young at grassroots level’

The alleged vote-buying involving Tainan Council Speaker Lee Chuan-chiao and a number of city councilors across party lines highlights the low quality of local candidates, National Taiwan University sociology professor Chen Dung-sheng said in a recent interview with ‘Liberty Times’ (sister paper of the ‘Taipei Times’) reporter Tzou Jiing-wen, adding that in order to challenge local political structures and change social environments, younger candidates with roots in local areas must foster a system that encourages grassroots democracy

By Tzou Jiing-wen

Liberty Times: The alleged vote-buying in the Tainan City Council is not the first time such incidents have occurred. What are your thoughts on the seemingly common occurrence of such situations?

Chen Dung-sheng (陳東升): The nine-in-one elections on Nov. 29 last year showed a significant increase in the willingness of young people to vote, reflecting a rising inclination to become involved in public affairs.

Seeing how the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has suffered from the votes of young people who are dissatisfied with its governance has given other political parties great hope that subsequent elections might yield results as great as last year’s nine-in-one local elections.

However, the outcome of the [Tainan] city council speakership election fell short of expectations, countering the positive progress the public had hoped for. In my opinion, the problem was due to the quality of those running for public service on the local stage; their quality, capability and connection with the public is simply lacking.

Some candidates might not have the best requirements, but have nonetheless been elected due to the voters’ wish to punish the KMT.

These people, elected to represent the public under the representative democracy model, are still under the shadow of the traditional political model. These are the questions we need to ask: Why are they the only people eligible to be [council] speakers? Why are these people the sole candidates for their respective political parties? Why are council members voting in such a way?

We are forced to give power to the kind of people representing the greater public who come from traditional political families or local factions, who have been selected by their peers in the party primaries. With the lack of will and capability among other members of the public to run in the elections, we are returning to a kind of “patron-client” model.

Local political structures built on such models are hard to challenge and surpass without a concentrated effort to cultivate more political talent on the local level, as well as innovation of various systems in local government.

As long as local political environments and democratic participation models do not change, the quality of local politics is also unlikely to change.

LT: How can we overcome this difficulty?

Chen: Making political activity on the local and regional stage truly in accordance with the democratic spirit is key to changing the state of affairs.

The most important aspect is political talent. What kind of politically talented people do we have in mind for participating in local politics? The sort who have their own thoughts on how democratic processes work and those who are willing to place the benefit of public affairs and the society first, as well as the capability of implementing all of the above.

Over the past decade or so, the number of young people willing to enter politics and start from the bottom up, working with people from the most grassroots level has been really limited. It is comparably more difficult for them to return to the township level and begin long-term cultivation of their connections there due to the existence of traditional factions, the lack of well-paying jobs and the habits of traditional social organizations.

Over the past five or six years, political, social and economic structure have seen great changes, such as the increase of the wealth gap, ineptitude of government, financial crises and social inequality, with the same incidents reflected in other nations worldwide.

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