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Taiwan’s wasted year

Taiwan’s wasted year

January 16, 2016 is the date for the next presidential and legislative election, with May 20 scheduled for the inauguration of the new president, whoever she is. But the year could have seen even more important structural changes, with a referendum on constitutional reform initially expected on the same day as the election.
However, the legislative caucuses’ failure to agree on which amendments to approve and to put to a national vote has turned 2015 into a wasted year from the viewpoint of the country’s democratic reforms.
The agreement needed to be reached before the end of the Legislative Yuan’s current session last Tuesday night, but predictably, that did not happen. According to the Constitution, the approval of a constitutional amendment by the Legislative Yuan has to be followed by a six-month period during which it has to be publicized and a further 28 days for the Central Election Commission to prepare the referendum. In addition, more than half the eligible voters need to approve the proposals in the referendum.
The way the Legislative Yuan performed, it is already virtually certain the deadline will not be met.
Contrary to what might have been expected, the issues before lawmakers were not polarizing topics involving the name of the country, Republic of China or Taiwan, or its relationship vis-à-vis China, or the degree of independence or unification the government should be working toward.
They were the simplest of issues and some of them had already been agreed to by the two major parties, the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party.
The lowering of the minimum voting age from 20 to 18 was the simplest issue on the table. Now that it was not approved for change, Taiwan is being left as the only East Asian democracy not to have followed the trend, with 18 already the most commonplace minimum voting age in most Western democracies.
The topic is not a taboo, but more likely one of the few issues which enjoys widespread support across political and ideological lines in Taiwan. Both the KMT and the DPP said they agreed to the change since it would give younger people a voice in the country’s affairs and strengthen their basic political and human rights.
The reason for the Legislative Yuan being unable to approve such a simple and basic proposal follows directly from the KMT decision to tie the issue up with another amendment, absentee voting.
The ruling party argues that one cannot go without the other, because even if 18- and 19-year-olds will be allowed to vote, they will still be largely unable to do so if they study in the cities and are domiciled in the countryside or in remote areas.
However, two other arguments can be made in this case. First of all, a simple legal amendment can give the students the right to cast an absentee vote, and a constitutional amendment is completely unnecessary. Secondly, the KMT has a hidden motive which is totally unrelated to the students.
The legalization of absentee voting will not in the first place benefit students, but Taiwanese living and working overseas, more particularly in China. The rationale is that those Overseas Taiwanese will be more likely to vote KMT, and that they could even be subject to interference by the Chinese authorities, which of course doesn’t want anybody to vote for the DPP.
The opposition wanted to veto the passage of such an amendment because the KMT was clearly not interested in the rights of the students, but only wanted to recruit more voters from China. The change would have given China an even more direct avenue to interfere in Taiwan’s democratic election process.
The KMT’s effort to needlessly complicate the issue by combining the two motions is unlikely to play well with voters. Students and social activists protested outside the party’s headquarters Wednesday afternoon.
Already, before the failure of the constitutional reforms became clear, a TVBS poll showing a narrow 3-percent lead for KMT presidential contender Hung Hsiu-chu over DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen also revealed that the opposition candidate did still hold a lead of more than 20 percent with voters aged 20 to 39. The totally unnecessary failure of the lower voting age to come through will not improve Hung’s situation, on the contrary.
Failing to pass the new age limit for voters despite the apparent cross-party consensus makes the KMT look insincere, as if the party realizes that the past year of student protests and local elections have made winning back the youth vote a hopeless cause.
The voting age and absentee voting are not the only changes that have been sunk by the ruling party’s inappropriate insistence on linking unrelated issues.
Another proposal would have lowered the threshold for small parties to win seats at the Legislative Yuan. At the previous legislative election, only the Taiwan Solidarity Union and the People First Party were able to gain enough at-large seats, but a range of new political groups has emerged since, some of them representing the new social movements and last year’s Sunflower Movement.
Not giving them a chance to win seats goes counter to Taiwan’s democratic spirit, yet the KMT again opposed the lowering of the threshold to 3 percent from 5 percent. Each voter in the legislative election can cast a vote for an individual candidate and a second vote for a political party. The minimum percentage of votes required for any party to be able to win a seat in that system now stands at 5 percent for that second vote, but reformists wanted to make the system more accessible to smaller parties.
The KMT again found a completely unrelated topic to tie things down, in this event the right of the Legislative Yuan to vote on a new premier appointed by the president. The proposal was seen as a ploy to make life more difficult for an eventual president from the DPP, as Tsai has led in most opinion polls until recently. If she is elected president but the DPP fails to conquer an absolute majority at the Legislative Yuan, each choice of a new premier will face hard time from a Legislature controlled by the KMT.
Turning the passage of constitutional amendments into an obstacle course has damaged Taiwan and harmed each side of the political spectrum, with neither the DPP-backed proposals nor the KMT favorites making it through.
If the KMT had allowed lawmakers to review each amendment on its own merits, at least some progress might have been made, especially on voting rights for youths.
However, the focus of the year will now be on short-term politics, on the superficial electioneering and politicking in the run-up to the presidential election, and not on the deeper structural problems facing the country.
While there is still hope for change in 2016, the current year is close to becoming a wasted year in Taiwan’s political history, to the detriment of its people and of their basic democratic rights.


Updated : 2021-09-25 00:27 GMT+08:00