Sex, Primaries and Electoral Systems in Taiwan

The campaigns for the November 2018 local elections remain focused on personalities rather than issues and continue to favor the two main parties. Lack of reform is part of the reason.

In the 1990s it became popular in Taiwan to create slogans that were variations of the title of the American film Sex, Lies and Videotape. One such example was the Kuomintang’s (KMT) 2000 election newspaper ad carrying the headline, Money, Lies and Hsingpiao Case (錢,  謊言, 與興票案).” In that ad, the KMT accused its rival, James Soong, of lying about accusations he had been involved in a political corruption case.

Then, back in mid-December 2001, a sex scandal erupted on Taiwan’s political scene. The case involved New Party (NP) politician and media personality Chu Mei-feng, whose illegally recorded sex tape had been distributed by the gossip magazine Scoop Weekly as a means to boost circulation. For a time, Taiwan’s media attention was diverted away from rising unemployment, inter-party conflict and the aftermath of the local and national elections that had been held just two weeks earlier. At a time of economic recession, lingerie retailers reported the scandal had contributed to a significant boost in sales. Both the magazine’s editor and the person who had secretly recorded the tape would later be sentenced to jail for two and four years respectively.

Combining a career in politics and the entertainment industry, Chu had been a rising star in the NP until the late 1990s. She had been initially elected for the NP as a Taipei City councilor in 1994 under the Single Non Transferable Vote (SNTV) in a multiple member district electoral system. In 1998 she joined the party’s primary to be a candidate in the national-level parliamentary election. Initial results showed her coming in the top two places, ahead of dynasty politician Hau Lung-bin, an incumbent legislator, future Taipei mayor and son of Taiwan’s former premier Hau Pei-tsun. Later, though, she was not nominated as a result of alleged irregularities in her primary campaign. At the time, media politicians such as Chu and the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Sisy Chen brought something quite different to Taiwan’s political scene and were often seen as a threat to more traditional politicians in the mainstream parties.

Why raise the story of a politician from two decades ago? There are connections to two of the themes in the title of this article.

Plus ça change…

An uninformed visitor to Taiwan over the last six months would probably guess that the country is about to conduct a major election. Throughout Taiwan, competing candidates appear on large election billboards show and the campaigns are being heavily featured in the media. In reality, the elections due in November 2018 are still a long way away and what we have been witnessing over the last year has been a long campaign for the inner-party primaries for mayoral and councilor candidates. Just as in the 1998 primaries, much of the media coverage has focused on clashes of personalities; we have also seen how new faces have challenged incumbents and dynasty politicians in primaries.

Another connection to the past is in the electoral system being used in 2018. Back in 2005, Taiwan revised its constitution to change its national parliamentary electoral system. The much-maligned SNTV in multiple member system was replaced by what is commonly called the Single Member Two Vote electoral system. A number of motivations lay behind the decision to change systems, including to reduce political corruption, encourage greater party and policy voting instead of candidate oriented voting, to strengthen parties and reduce factionalism, to reduce campaigning costs and for mainstream parties to reduce the threat of smaller challenger parties. In recent weeks I have been delighted to see some of my students in London write research papers on the impact of these reforms over the last three elections. They found that while some of the reform objectives have been achieved, in other areas there has been continuity. However, while Taiwan and Japan reformed their national-level electoral system, they left the old system intact at the local level. In other words, the current primary elections we are witnessing are preparations for local elections under the SNTV electoral system.

A question for Taiwan’s political elite should be that if the old system for national elections was so bad, then why have we not yet seen a similar bid to reform at the local level?

Cross-nationally proportional representation tends to be more favorable for smaller parties and such reform should create the possibility of more issue-based campaigning. Adding greater diversity into local councils should serve to reduce the sense of alienation many younger voters feel towards local politics.

One way that we can see the implications of this electoral system was in the last round of local elections in the autumn of 2014. The election was held just over six months after the Sunflower Movement, a movement that was partially caused by a failure of mainstream party politics. There appeared to be growing interest in the idea of alternative politics or a “third force,” something quite distinct from the mainstream parties and their splinter parties. When the results came in, however, it was clear that the old electoral system had helped produce continuity, as the mainstream parties remained dominant. Despite the unpopularity of the then-ruling KMT, it was able to remain the largest party in local council seats (albeit suffering a severe reduction in seats). Alternative parties and civil society candidates struggled to make a breakthrough. Even though the Green Party ran a well coordinated policy driven campaign and did win its first local seats, this was well short of the hoped-for alternative breakthrough. My interviews at the time suggested that the candidate-oriented voting behavior encouraged by the SNTV electoral system continued to benefit well resourced incumbents and mainstream party candidates. In contrast, issue-based campaigns struggled to get off the ground.

Now in 2018 there are some clear similarities to the previous local campaign in 2014. Although the two main parties are unpopular, they look likely to remain dominant under the candidate-oriented electoral system. At least based on the evidence of the primaries, the campaign remains focused on personalities rather than issues or even parties. It is likely that the New Power Party (NPP) will emerge as the third-largest party, but it is unlikely to perform as well as even the NP in its local breakthrough in 1994, when Chu was first elected. In some respects the NPP appears to be acting more like the mainstream parties in trying to undermine the prospects of other alternative parties rather than generate a united third force at the local level. For instance, it is nominating candidates to stand in areas where Green Party and Social Democratic Party activists had long been preparing to stand.

Adding diversity

So what should be done? Most political scientists would agree that the answer does not lie in the electoral system that was adopted at the national level. Although it has raised the importance of parties, it actually further squeezed the space for smaller parties, reduced voter choice and reinforced mainstream party dominance. What I would propose instead would be to make half local city/county councilors seats elected by proportional representation, while the other half would continue to be elected under multiple member districts. This would allow voters to maintain their link to individual politicians but provide greater scope for a different style of politics at the local level. Cross-nationally proportional representation tends to be more favorable for smaller parties and such reform should create the possibility of more issue-based campaigning. Adding greater diversity into local councils should serve to reduce the sense of alienation many younger voters feel towards local politics.

I have yet to hear discussion of local councillor electoral reform, but it does appear to be something that could be initiated during President Tsai Ing-wen’s first term. The DPP is unlikely to enjoy such a large parliamentary majority after 2020, so the next couple of years are a window of opportunity. Moreover, such reform might offer one avenue to regain at least some of the goodwill that President Tsai has lost in civil society after her initial period in office. Naturally such reforms would require a degree of cross-party negotiation and consensus building, but if we think back to the last round constitutional reforms in 2005, the current environment for reform actually is much more favorable.

Top: Supporters of independent candidate for Taipei City Ko Wen-je in the November 2014 elections gather at a rally on Nov. 23, 2014 (photo: J. Michael Cole).

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