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Electoral reforms would improve democratic practice

I had a letter published in the Taipei Times today suggesting some reforms Taiwan could make to its electoral system. I have previously discussed the importance of referendums for Taiwan and the belligerence of the KMT in opposing them. I also wrote about reforming the voting system for the Legislative Yuan following the election in 2008.

Since democratization began in Taiwan in the early 1990s, there have been a number of reforms to the electoral system. One of the largest changes was the reform of the voting system for the Legislative Yuan that came into effect in 2008.

The 2008 legislative election, the first under the new system, resulted in the pan-blues having a super majority. The most recent conflict in the legislature has come about because the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has used this majority to push the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) through the legislature without any substantial scrutiny.

A thorough review of the ECFA by the legislature may have done much to allay the fears of Taiwanese about the content of the agreement. However, after the rejection of petitions for a referendum on the ECFA, Taiwanese have further been denied the chance to submit the ECFA to the scrutiny it deserves.

While all the legislators were democratically elected by the Taiwanese public, those on the pan-blue side have failed to live up to the standards expected in a democracy. I would like to offer two suggestions on how Taiwan’s democratic system could be improved.

The first is reform of the electoral system. The change I suggest is a relatively simple one that wouldn’t change electoral boundaries or the number of legislators. Taiwan should adopt preferential voting to replace the current single non-transferable vote (SNTV) or “first past the post” system.

In Australia preferential voting is the norm. It has helped promote the development of minor parties, which have played an important moderating role in the political system.

Preferential voting allows voters to vote for the party of their choice without fear that their vote will be wasted. Tactical voting under the SNTV systems means people are often forced to vote for a party they don’t actually support because their preferred party has no chance of being elected.

Preferential voting gives minor parties more opportunities to participate in the democratic process. It would encourage more negotiation and consensus building between parties. A greater plurality of voices would help prevent any single party from establishing a hegemony.

My second suggestion is to reform the Referendum Act (公投法). The most important change is to remove the unreasonably high threshold of votes for the result to be valid. This encourages non-voting or boycotting tactics.

While the pan-blue dominated legislature may be unwilling to make these changes, people can take this matter upon themselves and use the referendum process itself to reform the Referendum Act. The opposition parties and civil society groups should work together to hold a referendum on removing the current “birdcage” provisions of the law.

An effective system of citizen-initiated referendums would provide a last line of democratic defense against abuse of power by the legislative or executive branches of government. It would put decision making in the hands of the people, rather than the current system which gives the people limited power to challenge decisions made by the government.

Taiwan must continue to strive to improve its practice of democracy. These suggested reforms would return more power to the voters and add checks and balances that are currently lacking.

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Comment from mike
Time 15 July 2010 at 8:26 am


I read your letter and I believe your proposed reforms would likely achieve the opposite effect of checking the use and abuse of government power. You’re welcome to post a refutation on my blog or otherwise comment before I consider sending my remarks as a letter to the Taipei Times.

[link to Mike's counter argument ]

Comment from David Reid
Time 16 July 2010 at 2:12 am

Actually a preferential voting system would result in little change to the actual make up of the legislature. What it would change would be the number of candidates competing in elections. These candidates would need to engage with other and negotiate for preference deals. There are of course risks that this could encourage corruption, but I don’t think this is a good reason for rejecting the idea.

Many Taiwanese people are already disengaged from the political process because they believe most politicians are corrupt. A preferential voting system would allow more candidates to participate and some of these candidates may run on the basis of their integrity and honesty.

In Australia two of the most influential minor parties that developed as a result of preferential voting, the Greens and the now defunct Democrats, are both recognised as having much greater integrity than the two major parties. Of course different factors are at play in Taiwan and the risk of corruption is real, but this should not be used as an excuse for not seeking to improve the democratic system. Taiwan can have a fairer electoral system and reduce corruption. It shouldn’t be a choice between the two.

With regard to referendums the experience in other countries shows that people usually vote conservatively and resist change. In Taiwan most people tend to support the status quo rather than major change. There is no reason to assume that removing the threshold for a referendum vote would suddenly allow a small minority to push through major changes. People would be equally as motivated to vote against a proposal they don’t like as they would be to vote for a proposal they support. Again encouraging more people to get involved in the political process would boost democracy.

I don’t see a risk of “populist totalarianism.” A foundation of democracy is recognition of basic rights that are non-negotiable. Referendums should not be held on issues which go against these basic rights. These rights are enshrined in Chapter Two of the ROC Constitution and also supported by the ICCPR that Taiwan has now ratified. Ensuring that the judicial system functions effectively to protect these rights is the key.

I agree with your addendum. I could have phrased that sentence a little better.

(I will cross-post this comment on my Mike’s blog.)

Comment from mike
Time 16 July 2010 at 8:45 am


We are in near complete 180 degree disagreement, and this will be a rather long comment but I will begin with some concessions. In respect of your defense of the preferential voting system, you make several points, two of which I am prepared to grant.

First, it may indeed be true that the introduction of a preferential voting system would not much alter the overall party composition of the legislature – I certainly wouldn’t bet on how the Taiwanese electorate would vote under such circumstances. Second, it might well be true that some minority candidates would run on the basis of their advertised integrity in contrast to an incumbent accused of corruption.

Yet it seems to me that neither of these possibilities refutes my claim that a preferential voting system would dilute the moral opposition to government power through the “higher” and “lower” forms of corruption (decide for yourself which one is which). You write that the risk of corruption ought not to be “used as an excuse for not seeking to improve the democratic system”… which is a point to which I will return. Suffice it to say at this point though, that I believe popular, vocal and morally clear opposition to government power is the most effective tactic to use against both Taipei and Beijing.

Now with respect to your defense that the referendum reform would carry little risk of of a minority forcing its will upon a majority, I must protest that this is precisely contrary to the argument I put to you, that a lower referendum vote threshold would make it easier for a political majority to impose its will upon political minorities. Whilst I appreciate that you do not seem to regard this as an “abuse” of government power – since as you say, referendums may not be held on the “basic rights” described in the ROC constitution – I submit that such a populist exercise of government power is no different from the representative kind in its transgression of the principles upon which individual freedom is predicated. Rather than provide a limit to the exercise of government power, your referendum reform amounts to a sort of limited franchising out of this exercise to the electorate, and is in this sense thus an extension of government power rather than a limitation.

Perhaps I could further clarify and embolden this claim by returning to your point that the risk of corruption is no reason to oppose a supposed improvement to the democratic system. First, I would ask you to recall your stated purpose of checking the abuse of government power. Quite aside from the matter of whether corruption is or is not an “abuse” of government power, your identification of “boosting democracy” as providing a check on government power is of limited value. I believe that it is more accurate to say that whilst democratic mechanisms may exert a narrowing, bottle-neck effect on the direct exercise of some aspects of government power, they surreptitiously broaden the range of application of government power throughout more and more areas of society and the economy.

Consider in the U.S. for example, that it was only via the promises delivered again and again at election podiums, that popular demand for such things as employment, housing, education, healthcare and retirement benefits somehow morphed into a “right of the people” to be fulfilled if necessary by government power despite none of these things being mentioned in the consitution or any of its amendments. Spending on social security, medicare and medicaid and other safety net programs now accounts for approximately 50% of the Federal government’s budget! So on the contrary, democracy has not proved to be a great limitation on government power, at least in the case of the U.S., rather it has become the great enabler of governemnt power.

Do similar demands for further government power not exist in Taiwan? There is already government control over large swathes of the education and healthcare markets. Civil servants and teachers already receive taxpayer funded benefits that would make even a Greek blush, and on top of that there are the howling screams from “traditional” industries on the one hand, for government to protect them from competition from China, and piercing shrieks from “modern” industries for the government to both allow and support them in investing in China.

This demand for more and more government power by more and more special interests in society is unsustainable and dangerous, and it has become so largely because of the opening up of the State apparatus by the application of democratic mechanisms. To prevent further abuse of government power (and remember David, one man’s “abuse” is another man’s “legitimate application”), it is necessary to find mechanisms of first reducing and thereafter of limiting the size and the scope of government power. The democratic mechanisms tend toward achieiving the opposite effect.

Comment from David Reid
Time 17 July 2010 at 2:50 am


I think we can only agree that we are in “near complete 180 degree disagreement.”

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