With the legislative and presidential elections less than a year away, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been busy maneuvering to ensure Ma’s re-election.
A driving force behind this move is Ma’s low popularity rating, which is barely 33 percent, according to a recent survey, and Ma and his handlers are obviously nervous and are looking for ways to turn the tide around.
One controversial move that has generated heated debate was the decision by the Central Election Commission (CEC) last week to combine the legislative elections, originally scheduled for December or early next year, and the presidential election, scheduled for March 20 next year. The combined elections will be held on Jan. 14.
By combining the elections, the administration is likely hoping to boost voter turnout, which would benefit Ma. Voters who are lukewarm about his performance might go to the polls to vote for their favored legislative candidate (perhaps induced by a financial incentive from the cash-rich KMT) and then think they might as well as vote to re-elect the president too.
The official argument is that merging the elections would save taxpayers about NT$500 million (US$17.3 million). That is an argument that always plays well, but interestingly enough, the administration has at the same time been pushing for a 3 percent salary increase for civil servants. That would cost taxpayers another NT$2 billion per year, but the beneficiaries would only be a group of voters who are likely to vote for Ma.
The CEC should have paused and reflected on two other implications of merging the elections. First, the elections are now scheduled for the middle of January, but the presidential inauguration date remains unchanged: May 20. This transition period of more than four months doesn’t bode well for Taiwan’s young democracy.
If the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were to win, it would not be unthinkable that pro-China elements in Taiwan could cause havoc, leading to social and political instability, which in turn would give Beijing an excuse to intervene and prevent the newly elected government from assuming power.
The least that needs to be done by the legislature to amend the situation is to move the inauguration of the president forward so that the lame-duck period is minimized and the newly elected president can start governing effectively within two months of the election.
Second, combining the elections would have a negative impact on the system of checks and balances in government. The strength of the US system is that it has mid-term elections in which the electorate can express its views on the policies of a sitting president. With the new system, Taiwanese will have to wait a four years before they can voice themselves through the ballot.
This move seems to be a careful calculation to give the KMT an advantage, while creating obstacles for DPP supporters. By holding the presidential election two months early, it will deprive about 50,000 first-time voters who were born between Jan. 14 and March 20 from voting. Polls show this group of young voters is more likely to vote for the DPP.
Ma, who was elected in 2008 with a comfortable margin and whose party holds a legislative majority, has lost credibility with the public. His policies have resulted in high unemployment and people are much worse off than before. Now that his re-election prospects are dim, he has resorted to these electoral moves with the intention of influencing voters.
Democracy is a hard-won Taiwanese achievement. Taiwan can remain truly free and democratic only if people can openly and freely express their preferences for leaders in elections that are fair and just.
Chen Mei-chin is a commentator living in Washington.
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