Building a better democracy

There has been no shortage of analysis of the recent election results by Taiwan bloggers. Michael Turton, The Only Redhead, Jerome Keating, A-gu, bent and Tim Maddog have all posted their opinions. Now after a long  period of contemplation it is time for me to put forward a few of my ideas.

The 2008 Legislative Yuan election was the first using the new electoral system. It was agreed to by both major parties so the DPP can hardly claim that it was unfair, but the election results have highlighted the problems in the new system and the need for further reform.

The key features of a future electoral system should be that it doesn't allow any single party to gain a super majority and it ensures that minor parties can gain representation. This ensures a plurality of representation and prevents any single party from gaining too much control. 

The New Party and TSU gained 3.95% and 3.52% of the vote respectively but failed to gain a seat because they didn't get past the 5% threshold. However, with 34 seats, 3% should be sufficient for a party to gain a seat. Voters who voted for these parties can rightfully feel disappointed. 

I am no expert in political science. However, coming from Australia preferential voting was something I have always considered quite normal yet it is not widely used. Preferential voting ensures  that people can vote for minor parties without their votes being wasted. The present system in Taiwan discourages people from voting for minor parties. The amount of votes cast for minor parties doesn't necessarily provide an accurate reflection of their actual support.

The system also needs to ensure that the number of seats more accurately reflects the proportion of votes. The single member electorate system means a party can gain a much larger percentage of seats than they have obtained votes. A greater level of proportional representation is desirable.  

An article by Gerrit Van der wees in the Taipei Times suggests adopting the Dutch system to ensure more equal representation. He writes:

In the Netherlands, the political parties first develop a list of candidates — through an internal democratic system that represents a mixture of US party caucuses and primaries.

The list is headed by a prominent party member, but — and this is essential — also has candidates who represent the different parts of the country.

In that way, if the particular party has done its homework, the party list represents a balance from the different regions and even factions within the party.

On voting day, the voters generally mark the box of the person who heads the list and the seats are allocated on the basis of the total percentage of the vote the party receives.

In that way, there is no discrepancy between the percentage of the vote and seats allocated to any particular party.

The "twist" is that voters have an alternative to giving what is essentially a "party vote" to the person who heads a particular party's list.

Voters may instead choose to make a "preference vote" by specifically naming a candidate lower on the party list, and if that candidate receives more preference votes than the total number of valid party votes divided by the total number of seats for that party, he or she is elected.

Local favorites can therefore still be elected, even if the party primary might not have put them in a high position on their list.

The Dutch system creates the possibility for new entrants and smaller parties to win seats, enhancing democracy because new and different voices are heard. [emphasis added]

While Taiwan might not necessarily adopt the Dutch system it needs to make a wider study of different electoral and voting systems.  

Perhaps I am too idealistic. Now that the KMT has such a large majority in the legislature there is no incentive for reform. Maintaining the status quo suits it fine and if Ma Ying-jeou were to occupy the President's Office then the Legislature would be all powerful.

The only real possibility for reform is if the DPP holds on to the Presidency and some sort of deal is struck to deal with the deadlock that has existed between the Legislature and the Executive during Chen Shui-bian's Presidency. I don't hold out much hope personally. Remember that Chen Shui-bian appointed a bi-partisan cabinet when he was first elected in 2000. There might be some initial rapprochement, but the legislators intent on wielding their power would sooner or later revert to stonewalling tactics. 

The path ahead for democracy in Taiwan is certainly a rocky one. I don't think a magically improved electoral system is going to appear anytime in the near future. However, I think it is important to put out these ideas and promote discussion. 

7 thoughts on “Building a better democracy

  1. Thanks for all the links. There are some really thoughtful and insightful pieces there for the reading. I particularly enjoyed reading the views of the Dutchman. I believe the Taiwan process is loosely patterned after ours in the USA where the two party system rules and the independents have all but been stamped out except at some local levels. They have practically no hope at all of winning any major elections and thereby continuing the status-quo probably corrupt government.

  2. David, this article is good, but it does rest on the assumption that the people want a better democracy. no one has commented on what i believe to be clear: democracy was allowed by the KMT in Taiwan in order to accomplish certain goals. now that these goals have been achieved more or less, the need for democracy has passed. with all the analysis of “what went wrong” that’s been going on, no one has really admitted that nothing went wrong at all. the people spoke. they chose the KMT. it’s as simple as that. (please note that i didn’t make any personal comments about the political system, but only stated what i believe to be true).

  3. It was agreed to by both major parties so the DPP can hardly claim that it was unfair

    Wasn’t it the DPP’s idea in the first place?

    The key features of a future electoral system should be that it doesn’t allow any single party to gain a super majority

    But what if a super majority of the electorate prefer one party over the others?

    and it ensures that minor parties can gain representation.

    I thought that was the whole point of the realignment: both the DPP and KMT apparently don’t want minor parties. I’m not sure how the general electorate feels about it…

    Now that the KMT has such a large majority in the legislature there is no incentive for reform.

    Why? They have to stand for re-election after all. If the Taiwanese don’t like what’s going on, they can throw the bums out.

    The only real possibility for reform is if the DPP holds on to the Presidency and some sort of deal is struck…

    or maybe the DPP needs to become more inclusive of Taiwanese society as a whole and start appealing more to mainstream voters…

    I can’t subscribe to the Bushman’s rather bizarre claim that ‘the time for democracy has passed’. I certainly do agree with his latter point: nothing went wrong. The people did in fact choose the KMT, and it is as simple as that. Full stop.

  4. The New Party and TSU gained 3.95% and 3.52% of the vote respectively but failed to gain a seat because they didn’t get past the 5% threshold. However, with 34 seats, 3% should be sufficient for a party to gain a seat.

    That’s not how things usually work. The distribution of election victories is nearly always more concentrated than that of the votes. The US, UK, Canada and many other Democratic countries use first past the post systems and have similar results.

    One example from the US would be the 2006 US House elections, 2.04% of the votes went to the Libertarian Party and 1.41% to the Green Party. Out of the 435 seats, the parties combined to win zero seats. Similarly, when Reagan won 49 of 50 states in his 1984 election, he was nowhere near winning 98% of the popular vote (it was actually about 60%).

    The vote differential in this Taiwanese election was quite substantial. The people made their choice at the ballot box, and they chose decisively. Some districts were definitely thin victories for the KMT, but as a whole the results weren’t that surprising. There were probably a lot more Taiwanese people than you realized who were unhappy with the DDP’s focus on things like this

  5. PR, my “claim” is that democracy was a ploy to allow the KMT to morph into what it’s become now, take the focus off themselves while doing it, and then put the blame for everything bad onto someone else. in less than a decade they went from hating the mainland (retake) to loving it (unify). how many people voted for the KMT in this last election so that things would go “back” to being “normal?” Mission: Accomplished. the entire process isn’t supposed to work like other systems because the goal isn’t the same.

  6. in less than a decade they went from hating the mainland (retake) to loving it (unify).

    I don’t think that is an accurate characterization of the KMT, and I would even question if a majority of the KMT really want to reunify (at all costs). The highest ranking members of the KMT have publicly said that independence remains an option for the people of Taiwan.

    So is it your position that the KMT will refuse to cede power if Ma wins in March and a DPP candidate were to win in 2012? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    I think one very real problem in Taiwan is that the terms of LY members are too long. Two years would be better, because it would hold them accountable to the electorate sooner. And if people here really want 4 year LY terms, it’s a bad idea to hold the election in the same year as the presidential election. It should be on an off-cycle, so that every two years there would be a national election, either LY or presidential.

  7. Thanks to all for their comments. Sorry I haven’t had time to add anymore. Just a couple of quick points.

    I don’t think two-year terms are desirable as they don’t provide for stable government. Longer terms encourage more long term planning and allow governments to make unpopular but necessary decisions. Holding the Presidential and Legislative elections a few months apart is not a good idea though. They should either be held simultaneously or in a two-year cycle like PR suggests.

    My suggestion that 3% should be the quota for parties for the legislator-at-large seats is based on simple mathematics and not out of preference for any particular party.

    What I wrote was oriented towards the future and building a better democracy in Taiwan. Further reform of the electoral system is a key part of that.

Comments are closed.