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In Taiwan: The Legislative Election Test

January 9, 2008

While all eyes are focused on Taiwan’s Presidential election in March, the more imminent Taiwan legislative election may generate more emotional heat and have greater long-term significance for the island’s 23 million people. Next week, on January 12th, Taiwan’s voters will for the first time choose their legislative representatives using a new electoral system. Once elected, representatives will be serving in a downsized but strengthened legislative body. These systemic changes in Taiwan’s democratic institutions will have a significant, long-lasting impact on the behavior of Taiwan’s politicians and parties, hopefully for the better. But the omens are not good.

In 2005, Taiwan ratified a series of constitutional amendments that radically changed the method of electing legislators. Under the old electoral system, candidates were chosen through proportional representation in multi-member legislative districts. Under the new single-member district system, only one candidate receiving the most votes in each district will be elected.

The original objective for these electoral reforms was to pull candidates’ stances on issues toward the center. For a candidate to gain their party’s full support and be nominated for a single-member district, they would need to be attractive to a large swath of voters and not be polarizing. The rationale was that this would curb extreme political views while increasing party discipline and policy cohesiveness in the legislature. Under the new system, smaller political parties’ prospects for having their candidates elected would decrease as a large number of votes are required to be elected. To many, this would be a welcome change from the extremism and contentiousness of previous legislators chosen through the old multi-member district method.

Instead ” consistent with the axiom that the most important consequences are always the unintended ones ” with fewer seats available to contest for, the party primary battles for candidate nominations in late 2007 became fiercer. Realizing that the elected legislators will be in powerful positions in a strengthened institution, the parties chose to nominate only party-loyal candidates, not the more flexible, moderate candidates who might be able to collect more votes.

The new single-member district system has generated its own potential problems as well. The re-drawing of district lines last winter produced tough partisan debates, accusations of gerrymandering, and some murky compromises. For example, the parties finally agreed that every existing county or city would have at least one legislative representative, regardless of population size. Some observers believe that this dis-proportionality will favor the so-called “pan-blue” or Kuomintang Party (KMT), which controls the majority of local governments in Taiwan.

Complicating matters further, there are concerns that January 12 could bring confusion and tension at some polling stations since voters going to the polls will be handed a ballot with a total of four votes to cast: one for individual candidates, one for political parties, and one for each of two highly controversial referenda. One referendum, backed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) calls for stripping the KMT Party of its vast assets which the DPP claims were stolen from the government. The second referendum, sponsored by the KMT, seeks to empower the legislature to launch corruption investigations against DPP officials. Voters will receive their ballots at two different tables ” one for the legislature and one for the referenda, and cast their votes in separate ballot boxes.

The downsizing and strengthening of the legislature, done through the 2005 constitutional amendments, are significant. The overall size of the legislature is cut in half, from 225 to 113 legislators. 296 candidates will be fighting for 73 of the 113 seats from the single member districts. Another 34 of the 113 seats will be determined by voters casting a second ballot for a political party. Fifty percent of each party’s list must be women ” one of the more radical electoral system changes engineered to promote gender equality. The remaining 6 seats are reserved for minorities.

The legislators elected January 12th will now be serving four-year instead of three-year terms, coinciding with the presidential term of office and providing more security to those elected. The 2005 constitutional revisions also abolished the National Assembly, which had elected the President and been responsible for constitutional reform, and severely curtailed the powers of the Control Yuan, a separate branch of government supervising executive branch officials and finances. In short, authority has been transferred and consolidated in the legislature.

What will be the impact of all of these changes on Taiwan politics and governance? Most analysts agree that the new smaller legislature, composed mainly of single-member district representatives serving longer terms with increased constitutional authority, will be a much more powerful body. Individual legislators’ powers will exponentially increase as only a handful of them will be required to make policy in committee meetings.

The new, stronger legislature can be considered good or bad news, depending on the outcomes of the January legislative election and the March Presidential election. Should the Taiwan electorate choose a president and a legislative majority from the same party, the president’s ability to move policies and programs through the legislature will improve dramatically, especially given the large number of nominated party loyalists. If the legislature and presidency are controlled by opposing parties, however, then the current state of “divided government” in Taiwan is likely to worsen considerably.

The election outcome has consequences for the entire Asia-Pacific region. The most divisive and high-profile issue in Taiwan politics is the island’s future relations with mainland China, and there currently is no “center” position in Taiwan on that question. The combination of fierce partisan disputes over the technical but critical issues of “one-stage vs. two-stage” voting and voting districts, rigid party loyalist candidates, and the promise of a stronger legislature do not auger well for the emergence of centrist politics.

Still, there is the possibility that the new governance and electoral structures just may drive leaders and voters to the center. The previous legislature’s structure and the former electoral process’ nature encouraged centrifugal political forces and weak accountability. The changes now are meant to increase the prospects for more mature politics and a more responsible legislative body ” changes that would be welcomed by Taiwan’s electorate and the rest of the world, as well.

Allen Choate is the Vice President for Partners in Asian Development at The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Allen Choate

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