Combining Elections May Not Help Ruling Party
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 10, 2011
How should presidential and legislative elections be scheduled and conducted? Democracies each have their own traditions. Each should realize that their own traditions have downsides. Should presidential and legislative elections on Taiwan be combined? That remains a perplexing problem, one that presents itself every four years. No matter which party is in power, electoral advantage will always be a consideration. Changing the election timetable may be viewed as the prerogative of the ruling administration. But will the election results necessarily benefit the ruling administration? That remains open to question.
The presidential and legislative elections occur at different times. That leads to a variety of political consequences. Consider the United States. Presidential elections are invariably accompanied by congressional elections. Congressional elections are held every two years, but for half the congressional seats only. Therefore the US must also hold mid-term elections. In general, midterm elections are bad for the ruling party. Therefore the White House and Congress are often controlled by different parties. One might even consider it the norm. Obama won the presidential race in 2008. His party won a controlling majority in both the House and the Senate. But last year during the mid-term elections, his party lost its House majority.
Legislative elections held less than a year after the presidential inauguration are referred to as "honeymoon period elections." These often take place in France. On May 22 France holds its presidential elections. A month and a half later, on June 10, France holds its parliamentary elections. The left and the right have formed coalitions in the past. But France has an election timetable in which presidential elections are followed by parliamentary elections. This means that in the wake of the presidential election, voters are presented with the opportunity to choose either a majority government or a minority government. They are presented with the opportunity during the parliamentary elections to vote for a party other than the president's. Based on the recent record, French voters tend to put their faith in the ruling administration. They tend to vote for the same party in parliament. That has been true from Chirac through Sarkozy. After winning the presidential election, the president's party generally has no trouble winning a majority in parliament.
On Taiwan, by contrast, we have a legislative election followed by a presidential election. This results in "anti-honeymoon period elections." Legislative elections are held in early December. Legislators take office on February 1 of the following year. This is followed by the presidential election in March, and the presidential inauguration on May 20. On Taiwan, the executive has traditionally been the dominant branch of government. Therefore, legislative election results may not indicate which presidential candidate the public will support. But politicians are adept at political games. Newly-elected legislators provide these politicians considerable latitude for political games. The DPP has long advocated streamlining and combining elections. During the 2008 presidential election however, it hoped that the presidential election would induce Blue Camp legislators to to desert and defect.
Alas, the DPP found itself dragged down by the Chen family corruption scandals. Its strategy failed. The result was a debacle. This time however, the ruling Kuomintang lost nine out of 13 elections. It is now concerned that if the legislative elections, which are held first, result in defeat, the impact may snowball. The DPP may gain momentum. Movement can now be detected at the KMT grassroots. KMT legislators in central and southern Taiwan may vote against their own party. The KMT is considering combining the elections. This would prevent fence sitters within the KMT from using the opportunity to collude with DPP legislators.
Two major elections are held within six months of each other, year after year. This leads to extreme polarization on Taiwan. For many citizens, this is intolerable. Therefore the proposal to combine the elections has considerable justification.
But according to the "Public Officials Election and Recall Law," the next batch of legislators must be elected 10 days before current legislators' terms expire. Therefore, if the elections are combined, voting must occur no later than January 20 next year. But this would mean that the new president must assume office on May 20. For a four full months, his status would be unconstitutional. Today the world is flat. Financial turmoil, new influenza strains, extreme climate conditions, hot money flows, general inflation, and other crises, may start in one place, but may spread worldwide overnight. Over the past several years, Taiwan has largely been spared the impact of such storms. But what if a crisis occurs during a ruling party change, at the same time as a constitutional crisis? Would a caretaker government have the either the determination or ability to cope? It is hard to say.
How should the constitutional crisis be resolved? The only apparent solution is a constitutional amendment extending the mandate for legislators by two months. But the ruling and opposition parties are currently engaged in all manner of intrigue. They cannot possibly cooperate and pass a constitutional amendment. An even bigger problem presents itself. The constitution clearly states that if the legislature votes no confidence in the government, the president may dissolve the legislature. Once the legislature is dissolved, by-elections must be held. Legislative terms must begin anew. The original process of combining elections would be disrupted. Any attempt to pass a constitutional amendment would be futile.
Four years ago the DPP, for fear of losing, refused to combine the elections. This time the KMT has proposed combining the elections. It too is having trouble avoiding campaign considerations. Few democracies around the world resemble the Republic of China. Here, even the timetable for elections is part of campaign strategy. That is why they keep getting changed, time and again. Winning or losing still depends upon who is in power. As the saying goes, high office is not attained through wisdom. Sacrificing the stability of the political system may not turn defeat into victory.