Taiwan’s legislative elections, under a new electoral system

Taiwan’s legislative elections are 12 January, with presidential elections to follow on 22 March.

The legislative elections will be the first under a new electoral system that was adopted by constitutional amendment about three years ago. Since becoming democratic in recent decades, Taiwan has been one of the rare cases of single nontransferable vote (SNTV). Not exclusively SNTV, as there has also been a list tier comprising around 18% of the total seats, but based on votes cast in the districts rather than a separate list vote. Most seats have been allocated through the rather rare SNTV, and in quite large-magnitude districts.

Much will change with Saturday’s’ vote. The nominal tier is no longer SNTV, but rather FPTP. There will now be two votes, one for local candidate and a separate one for party list. The share of the seats allocated by list PR remains small, but not as small as it was: just over one quarter (and with a 5% threshold).

Thus Taiwan is moving towards a fairly straightforward MMM system, albeit one with a strong tilt towards the nominal and majoritarian tier. It is also moving to a much smaller legislature. The body has been cut in half, to 113 seats, which will make it one of the world’s smallest legislatures, relative to population.

A piece in the Financial Times discusses the campaigns’ adaptations to the new system. ((Thanks to Tom Lundberg, for sending me the link via e-mail.)) First of all, on the expected outcome:

The result could see one party win an absolute legislative majority for the first time in more than a decade and produce vastly more efficient lawmaking after years of deadlock.

Yes, the notion that “efficiency” in government is best delivered when one party gets to tell everyone else what to do is a hard one to put to rest. It is worth noting here that while it has been some years since a single party had a majority in Taiwan’s legislature, most of the parties with seats in the Legislative Yuan are aggregated into one of two large pre-election blocs: The “Pan-Blue Alliance” of the KMT and People First Party, and the “Pan Green Alliance” of the Democratic Peoples Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union. The “deadlock” actually refers to divided government. The current legislature indeed has a majority, held by Pan-Blue, which won 113 of the 225 seats in December, 2004. However, the presidency is held by the Democratic Peoples Party (DPP), whose candidate, Chen Shui-Bian, won reelection in March, 2004, in one of the closest elections ever anywhere (50.11 to 49.89, with fewer than 30,000 votes out of 12.9 million cast separating the two). Chen won his first term–and the first for any non-KMT candidate–in 2000 with the help of a fragmented field (39.3% against two major competitors). It is the combination of a narrow DPP hold on the presidency (which is quite powerful) and the KMT’s return to power with the help of its “Blue” ally in late 2004, that has generated “deadlock.”

Of course, if the KMT wins a majority outright on Saturday, “deadlock” will continue until at least the March presidential elections–beyond if a non-KMT candidate were then to win that election.

In any event, the FT article makes an interesting claim about the impact of SSDs having replaced SNTV in the nominal tier:

To the dismay of party strategists, the new voting system has shifted the policy debate from issues of national importance to local concerns.

“To get elected now, you have to address issues such as the construction of parking lots in your constituency, something that in the past only featured in local campaigns,” said Wu Den-yih, KMT secretary-general and a lawmaker running for re-election.

Of course, this claimed effect may come as a bit of a surprise. After all, the intraparty (or intra-alliance) competition of SNTV would be expected to generate parochial and particularistic politics, and my understanding of Taiwan (which is not deep, I will admit) is that it indeed did so. However, there were several factors in Taiwan that seem to have made the particularism of SNTV there much less than was the case when the system was used in Japan and Colombia. For one thing, the ideological cleavage is much deeper in Taiwan. For another, the legacy of the pre-democratic KMT machine seems to have made vote division other than by the provision of rents and “pork” more feasible, and the strong brand identity of the DPP apparently has had a similar ability to command voter loyalty to specified candidates without those candidates having to give goodies for which they can claim credit. If these characterizations are accurate (and, as always, I invite those with better country knowledge to correct me), then a move to SSDs indeed could engender more parochial campaigning. But it certainly is not the direction of change we normally would expect.

Of course, the decrease of size of parliament–and, I would add, the move to SSDs–has created intraparty and intrabloc tensions:

Election experts say downsizing parliament has had other ramifications. “The political parties are left with lots of incumbents who are fighting for their political survival and whose interests they need to take care of,” said Yang Wan-ying, an expert on parliamentary ­politics at National Chengchi University.

The KMT, for example, has had to accommodate lawmakers of the People First party, a breakaway faction rejoining its caucus to avoid being thrown into political oblivion by the new rules.

There are sure to be several interesting academic papers to be written after the elections about how the two alliances divvied up their limited slots.

As for competition between the parties, Asia Sentinel reports:

Certainly the campaign has been bitter and intense, especially in the 20 to 30 constituencies where the margin of victory is likely to be less than 2,000 votes, and in Taipei, whose city elects eight representatives and county elects 12. Figures released by the prosecutor’s office on January 8 showed 5,669 accusations of election-related bribery involving 10,312 people. The office said that by the time the election is over, the number is likely to be a record.

“The fiercer the competition for votes, the more serious is the vote-buying,” the prosecutor said.

Chen faces the same problem many a two-term president faces on the other side of the Pacific, with co-partisan legislators preferring he stay away:

Chen, who is also chairman of the DPP, has campaigned in all 73 constituencies, but his popularity has fallen to the extent that many DPP candidates do not welcome him to their constituencies, preferring instead to campaign with the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

On the other hand, the KMT presidential candidate in the March elections, Ma Ying-jeou, “is a popular figure, warmly welcomed by his candidates.”

This is the sort of election timing that creates what I have called a “counterhoneymoon” election: A legislative election that closely precedes a presidential election. If the KMT does well on Saturday, an end to “gridlock” once Chen leaves office looks likely.

(Currently, another Asian country is gearing up for a honeymoon election: South Korea, whose new president won last December by a large majority. Presumably his party will win by a large majority in the legislative elections, which coincidentally are the same date as Taiwan’s presidential election.)
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7 thoughts on “Taiwan’s legislative elections, under a new electoral system

  1. The delimitation of the single member constituencies within the cities and counties was a major political issue, with bargaining between the government and the legislature. Of the 15 cities and counties to be partitioned (the 10 others have only one seat), only seven of the districting schemes proposed by the Central Election Commission (CEC) were approved in a normal way. The eight other schemes were decided by drawing lots:
    “Taipei and Taichung cities and Miaoli and Changhua counties will adopt the version suggested by the CEC, while Kaohsiung city will follow the consensus of the legislature.
    Taipei county will follow the proposal offered by the opposition Taiwan Solidarity Union, Taoyuan county will adopt the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s scheme, and Pingtung county will use the scheme agreed upon by the Non-partisan Solidarity Union, People First Party, Kuomintang and Taiwan Solidarity Union.” (Taiwan Headlines)

  2. China Post reports that the KMT won 81 seats and the DPP only 27.

    The story does not note the KMT’s vote share, but says the DPP won around 37%. (I assume that’s party-list votes.) What a difference the change in the electoral system (including the smaller assembly) made: 24% of the seats on 37% of the vote. It would seem likely that the KMT had a little under 60% of the votes, which would be a far more disproportional outcome than the last SNTV election, when the KMT_led “Pan-Blue Alliance” won 50.2% of seats on 49.7% of votes (compared to 44.9% of seats on 46.3% of the vote for Pan-Green).

  3. Tom, I have two extensive analyses on my blog.

    The numbers

    Empire of Bacon

    The CW is that the DPP lost because everyone was pissed at Chen Shui-bian. The numbers don’t show that, though. What really happened was a perfectly conventional legislative election, but winner take all districts, the at-large district system, and some nifty districting design gave the KMT a huge advantage.

    Michael

  4. Tom, I have two extensive analyses on my blog.

    The numbers

    Empire of Bacon

    The CW is that the DPP lost because everyone was pissed at Chen Shui-bian. The numbers don’t show that, though. What really happened was a perfectly conventional legislative election, but winner take all districts, the at-large district system, and some nifty districting design gave the KMT a huge advantage.

    Michael

  5. Tom, I have two extensive analyses on my blog.

    The numbers

    Empire of Bacon

    The CW is that the DPP lost because everyone was pissed at Chen Shui-bian. The numbers don’t show that, though. What really happened was a perfectly conventional legislative election, but winner take all districts, the at-large district system, and some nifty districting design gave the KMT a huge advantage.

    Michael

  6. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

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