Thursday, 15 July 2010

Contra Reid's Voting Reforms

David Reid has another letter published in the Taipei Times in which he this time argues for further democratic reforms to the government in Taipei. I can share his tactical aim of further checking the abuse of power by the government in Taipei (and thereby the one in Beijing also to a certain extent), however I believe the methods he proposes for doing so - the introduction of a preferential electoral voting system and the lowering of the vote threshold for referendums - would be as likely to achieve the opposite result as to that intended.

I should preface my criticisms with a certain clarification of premises. I take the term "government power" to its conceptual root in referring to the presumption of one man to presume a rule of force over another, which in the democratic context, occurs for no other reason than that he happens to belong to a political majority. Therefore, my criticisms are to be taken as arising from a much broader premise than mere reference to the current KMT administration or even exclusively to the bureaucratic apparatus of state coercion over which Taiwan's two chief parties fight. So with that preface in mind, allow me to proceed to my criticisms of David Reid's suggestions...

A preferential voting system may indeed allow for greater representation of minor parties in the legislature, but why could these not instantly be bought off by a determined, majority holding government - either through the transparent bribery of political compromise, or through what me might refer to as more opaque forms of compromise? The clear moral opposition that a minority party (such as the TSU) might have been able to voice when highly unlikely of attaining political power themselves would be far more difficult to maintain with any credibility and thus such a minority party would likely become a mere filter, diluting but still furthering the spill of government power throughout Taiwanese society.

Regarding Reid's proposed lowering of the referendum vote threshold on the grounds that such an act would discourage non-voting and boycotting tactics, it strikes me as a pertinent question whether Reid has forgotten the very purpose of setting a high threshold. A lower vote threshold would represent a much lesser restriction on the power presumed by a political majority - whether in government or not (recall my prefacing remarks). A lower vote threshold for national referendums would cut both ways, sometimes serving the powers of a political majority against the government, and sometimes serving the power of a different majority in government. Such a move strikes me as a deceptively small but actually very dangerous step toward the possibilities of populist totalitarianism, which is quite contrary to the end of inhibiting the spill of government power throughout Taiwanese society.


At one point in his letter, Reid remarks:
"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. "
My reading of the government's decision not to publish the details of the ECFA was that doing so would bring a significant number of KMT legislators under political pressure from their financial sponsors and local electorates to reject the ECFA or resign. I don't think that publication of the details of the ECFA itself would have "allayed fears" about its' content, rather it would have stoked such fears and prompted political action.


  1. 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 own blog.)

  2. My comment is too large to post here, so I have posted it on your site.


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