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Dec 11, 2007

Don't expect much from the next Legislative Yuan

There are expectations that the quality of legislators will improve thanks to the single member district / two vote system. There was even a well-reasoned article by Max Hersh on how halving the legislature might reduce deadlock by putting fewer people on key committees and increasing their power. Unfortunately, I have to take issue with both expectations for improvement and the likely results of halving the legislature. Allow me to outline my main points below.

1. Legislators don't run campaigns aimed at their district's needs

Legislators don't run a campaign suited for their district. What do I mean? Their ads generally fail to highlight even a single issue that might be important locally and instead count on vague statements about development, non-corruption and competence, or highlight that the candidate is supported by such-and-such party heavy weight. The candidate virtually begs the public to vote for him while providing very little substance.

This applies to billboard ads, driving truck ads, radio ads and even television ads. Most voters will know very little about a candidate's actual positions when they go to cast a vote, unless the candidate was a former high-profile city level politician, in which case he tends to be judged on his performance there.

Photos like this from Michael Turton's Politics and Elections set on Flickr are a perfect illustration. Where's the substance? The only way you'd learn what a candidate thought was if you visited his blog or met him in person.

On the other hand, there might be something else to this -- the lack of real disagreement between candidates on most issues. In the US issues like abortion, national healthcare, tax rates, fair/free trade, immigration, gun control and a war policy divide the electorate into very different slices in each district which don't necessarily divide the same as the party line. In Taiwan, all of those issues are basically social concensus issues, with the only real issue on the table being relations with China and identity.

2. The hard party system makes legislators accountable to party leadership, not to voters

First, candidates are chosen by the party apparatus rather than through a primary system that directly involves the voters of the district. Candidates depends on the party center just to get a nomination. [Edit: The DPP did use a primary + opinion poll system to pick it's districted candidates and an opinion poll + appointment method for at large nominees. This is hugely more democratic than the KMT's method of appointing everyone, but the details of that system (how the primary and opinion polls are weighted) are subject to the party center's decision making apparatus and could be very different next time around. More importantly, it doesn't change the below points of caucus control of the legislators].

And considering the Leninist-style organization of the KMT (which the DPP copied far too much for my taste), the party center is not all that accountable to voters or the party rank-and-file either. But that's just the beginning.

In a place with single member districts like the United States, the party actually cannot force a member to vote any one way on any one issue. Well, they can apply various pressures, and the party's National Committee could even help a rival candidate in a future legislative primary, but they certainly couldn't revoke your party affiliation for voting against the party line.

US representatives may vote against the party line on any issue, but they still provide the majority party with control of committee chairs and the legislative agenda, so the national parties considers it a worthwhile trade-off. In other words, the parties just have to live with not being able to control the legislators on every issue in the United States.

And in Taiwan, that couldn't be further from the truth. Caucus leadership listens to a party's central committee leadership and rarely acts with any initiative. On contentious legislation, legislators must show their ballot to caucus leadership before casting it in the Legislative Yuan or risk being disciplined by the party leadership -- the caucus will even threaten to revoke your party membership (and your funding, and your support...) if you don't cast the "right" ballot.

So in other words, it basically doesn't even matter that the candidate can't run a campaign tailored to the district -- he wouldn't be able to follow through on any promises if the party center didn't like it. Might as well not make any specific promises.

3. At-large lists are being used to protect both the wackos and the most powerful, including current chairs

The parties have used their at large lists for the upcoming election to protect both the attack dogs in each party like Chiu Yi (邱毅) and Wang Hsing-nan (王幸男), and to protect most of those people who are already in the chairs and co-chairs of committees. This is where I disagree with the expectations Max talked about.

Hopes that the halved legislature would have an easier time negotiating because of fewer powerful incumbents doesn't make sense, since most of these incumbents aren't even marginally responsible to a district's voters in any way, and instead depend on their popularity with the party leadership for their at large nominations. So what makes anyone think things will be different after the next round of voting?

Let's look at the chairs of the Home and Nations Committee, Foreign and Overseas Compatriot Affairs Committee, Defense Committee, Finance Committee, Economy and Resources Committee and the Budget Committee, to see where they're running:

AT LARGE: 8 孔文吉 薛凌 林春德 張顯耀 高志鵬 羅志明 賴幸媛 吳明敏
COMPETITIVE DISTRICTS: 5 徐國勇 張碩文 蔡啟芳 李和順 翁重鈞

NOT RUNNING: 3 蕭美琴 謝文政 蘇起

So what makes people think the chairs will suddenly be able to get more done in the future, given their current performance record, their unaccountability to voters and their dependence on the party's central leadership?


So though that was a rather long-winded post, I hope you see why I have no expectations for the next legislature to be any more responsible than it is now. They'll simply be more powerful (think about it -- far fewer bribes to hand out!) and at least as slavish to the party's central leadership, a perect formula for a legislature that will STILL not be able to negotiate shit.


Jason said...

Fantastic analysis, A-Gu. Definitely "forward-worthy"!

In regard to the notion that the re-sized LY will yield more action, I think a lot of people mistake their expectations for an absence of general idiocy for a functioning legislative body. That is to say, since the new system is technically supposed to discourage campaign-oriented grandstanding by the wingnuts in each camp, many (myself included) have come to assume that elected representatives will suddenly turn to the business of running the country for lack of anything better to do.

This is where I think your analysis is spot-on: as long as the parties exert more control over a Member than their constituencies do, the only difference we'll see is in the size of the fist fights in the LY.

Unknown said...

this legislative election is interesting in the way that "first past the post system" is used to determine 2/3 of the seats. one would need to gather around 35% of nationwide votes ( which both KMT and DPP can easily reach ) to win 2/3 of the 70+ seats. then the 30+ seats by party preferences.
I read the election map on the main site with interest. if the analysis was correct - KMT would sweep almost entirely the north seats and DPP the south. Is this good? considering 45% in Taipei City support DPP and they might not have a single legislator from the DPP to represent them come 2008.

阿牛 said...

I agree with you n.j. : the new system will not really create a representative picture of the blue-green balance in society in either the north or south. It seems unfair.

irwinc said...

I wouldn't say first past the post is unfair since you also get to cast a vote for the party (which goes to elect the at large candidates). Techinically, the 45% of Green votes in Taipei is well represented by the Green at large legislators. But I agree that in practice, that's not going to happen.

But look at it from another angle... this election will set the voting patterns. I'm assuming there will be a lot of 51~55% Blue districts that could be considered low hanging fruit for the next election that DPP can focus its resources.