Elections in a Time of Democratic Malaise

Taiwanese voters have every reason to be disillusioned with many of the ongoing campaigns in the nine-in-one elections. But there is hope for democratic rejuvenation
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J. Michael Cole
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(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, on Nov. 18, 2014.) 

On Nov. 29 millions of Taiwanese will once again exert their hard-earned right to choose the men and women who will represent them at the local level for the next four years in nationwide elections of unprecedented scope. Known as the nine-in-one elections, this democratic exercise involves mayors, chiefs, councilors, commissioners, lizhang and other local titles for a total of 11,130 seats. Though there is much to celebrate in holding such elections, several incidents that have occurred during the campaign period serve as a reminder that Taiwan’s young democracy isn’t in very good shape.

While mudslinging is not unusual in Taiwan’s ebullient democracy (or in any democracy, for that matter, including more “mature” ones), the practice of character assassination, insinuation, and trial by media has reached levels hitherto unseen in the island-nation, casting a pall on the ideals that, on paper at least, are the pride of its 23 million people, “blue” or “green.”

Arguably, one of the principal reasons why negative campaigning has been so prominent in the elections is that many of the candidates simply didn’t have cogent platforms to start with. In fact, with the exception of a few municipalities, the campaigns have been overwhelmingly lacking in substance and imagination, with candidates banking on the traditionally secure votes along party lines (“greens” voting DPP and “blues” voting KMT, with smaller parties accounting for a small percentage of the ballots).

Continue to the full article on the CPI Blog.

One Response to “Elections in a Time of Democratic Malaise”

November 28, 2014 at 4:10 am, mike said:

Regular elections are not a “remedy” for the contentiousness of politics. In the first place, the electoral mechanism – when combined with a universal franchise – incentivizes the growth of State powers and the expansion of politics into heretofore untouched areas of social life, and thus far from “remedying” contentiousness, democracy can actually (and I think usually does) exacerbate it. Secondly, the real advantage of regular elections lies in the promise of a future election for the losers and is in this sense a safety valve to avert break downs in the social order. How effective elections are in that function is tested every time one is held, because… policy is war by other means. To bemoan the negativity and mudslinging of elections is thus to miss the point. The relevant contrast is not that between a high-minded policy discussion and irresponsible sniping, but between mere irresponsible sniping and an outright breakdown of social order on the streets.

Whilst it may be true that elections are the least bad way of substituting one set of political rulers for another, it is not true that elections are the least bad way of “remedying” political contentiousness. Since political contentiousness arises through disagreements over policy and legislation, then a society in which policy and legislation were confined to a few narrow areas would plausibly suffer much less from political contentiousness. That society is not Taiwan, unfortunately and nor is Taiwan likely to become that society any time in the forseeable future.

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