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.
The dangers posed by these incidents offer a chance for change, allowing others to promote alternative ways to bring about change. This is especially true for younger generations. This is also due to the promotion and implementation of new models of social practice as well as cooperation by society.
From the political perspective, the Wild Strawberries movement in 2008 and the Sunflower movement last year were both significant reflections of the [changes in] young people’s values, as they become more active in public affairs.
From the economic angle, we have to ask why social economy, local economy, microentrepreneurship and social enterprises have slowly been garnering more attention?
I feel these reflect the stance of the younger generation on modern political and economic crises and are their methods of how to solve the problems. Through analysis, there are structural perquisites that allow a generation of people, who are about 30 years old, to use different modes and channels — many of which are not used by traditional or older generations — such as Facebook and the Professional Technology Temple [PTT, Taiwan’s largest academic online bulletin board] to achieve such things.
These modern phenomena, brought on by technological advances, have enabled the multiplicity of methods of sharing information. Add to that the relatively low threshold for participation of younger people in public affairs; these innovative young people are beginning to rally people to their causes.
Through alternative social media, we are slowly seeing some young people returning to local regions, to their roots, and hoping to change or cultivate their dreams there with friends who share their visions. It is slowly gaining strength and beginning to show some effect.
For young people to return to their hometowns or go to other areas, there must be an economic basis, one that must be innovative and meaningful both for those who return and for the local society. It would therefore provide the basis for maintaining the livelihoods of those who return to the townships.
These businesses founded by young people might cause some spillover effects, leading to changes on the local level.
For example, they might develop hostels for young people, joint workspaces, or natural farming organizations. Through training courses, public debates, local travel, or hiring for intern managers and posting such information on social media outlets, such as Facebook, young people are expanding the parameters of their social circles that they could mobilize. Those who are concerned or interested in the local economy and public affairs, especially those whose residence is in the area, but are currently living out of town, would of course be affected.
When a pool of affected people [or interested parties] grows large enough, it can form an alternative channel which can be mobilized in a bid to penetrate the local political scene.
Communities are their own entities, thus local political problems are not only political in nature, and should be topics for discussion among a whole community. When we seek to deal with local issues, we must therefore take into consideration local politics, economics, culture, as well as security and social welfare. The people do this could be young people,or middle-aged people who have returned to their hometowns after retirement; but they should nonetheless form a loose coalition or group sharing the same ideals. Only by doing so can long-term solutions to local political problems be solved.
To illustrate this point, a young man was running a fan group on Facebook called “I am Jhongli People” (我是中壢人), which he founded in 2011, that was dedicated to talking about issues relating directly to Jhongli. Though he had not spent a lot of money on the page, he attracted more than 260,000 followers, many of whom were Jhongli residents, but even more were Jhongli people who lived out of town.
This young man later ran for the Taoyuan city council and was elected. This is an interesting example for young people of how devoting oneself to politics can help surpass the traditional “client-patron” model and political families. Such a method has helped enable people to participate in public matters or elections and has opened doors for an alternative social political organization.
LT: What are the greatest challenges that lie ahead?
Chen: Politics or democracy on the local level will not automatically improve; it requires first a group of people willing to participate in local affairs to slowly organize and truly be devoted to the region as well as cooperate with appropriate systems. There is no shortcut.
When I say “the system,” I mean the nation’s current representative democracy system. The actual concept of direct democracy is not yet known. Take our promotion of the citizen’s meetings and participatory budgeting under deliberative democracy for example. The concept behind this is that only the leaders are familiar with the process of democracy and willing to devote themselves to public affairs.
That is not enough, as members of the general public must also be willing to devote time to debates of public affairs and the allocation of resources, coming to mutual understandings of the reasons behind such methods of allocation.
The promotion of this type of participatory democracy is important. If we continue with simple representative democracy, we might not have a stable condition with which to consolidate Taiwan’s democracy.
The problems facing us today are political in nature, but that does not mean that we have to use political measures to deal with them. Perhaps by taking a detour, via communal economy, local cultural asset preservation or local agriculture, we can develop a positive local social system.
I take an optimistic view toward changes in overall local communities as the long-term efforts of true local communities are beginning to show some results. Particularly the young people who are working hard in various areas, while these new community economies and public affairs organizations start to branch out and connect with each other.
In the future, they might overcome the geographical limits and generate the impetus for nationwide changes.
Translated by Staff Writer Jake Chung
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