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September 21, 2017

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Mandatory suffrage may be key to making a democracy of the people

The China Post--Taiwanese lawmakers are famously busy. Besides the campaign rallies, the sit-ins, the picketing and the TV political talk shows, there is also the grilling of government officials on details as minor as the way they stand and dress (a lesson the Cultural Minister learned in the hard way for daring to prop her chin up while listening to lawmakers and wearing white sneakers to Legislature meetings). As one incumbent lawmaker suggested on a TV show, lawmakers are busiest on the weekends as they have to attend dozens weddings and funerals as honorable guests.

All the while they are going easy on actual lawmaking.

The civic group Citizen Congress Watch pointed out that the Legislature passed only 11 bills in the previous session, the second-lowest in history. One of the bills that is still sitting in the Legislative Yuan is the Cabinet proposal of paid child care leaves during typhoons.

While Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party lawmakers described their deadlock over U.S. beef imports in dramatic terms such as "attacks," "battle plans," "recapture the beachhead" and (my personal favorite) "rather be dead than defeated," what was actually going on was DPP lawmakers had an early summer camp inside the Legislative Yuan while their KMT counterparts idly watched on. Even "impasse" is too grand a word for the situation, which is more like a badly rehearsed play about nothing.

Political brinkmanship is not only plaguing Taiwan. "The global economic recovery is being held hostage by political brinksmanship that has created policy paralysis, undermined confidence and stymied the effectiveness of macroeconomic policy tools," Professor Eswar Prasad of Brookings was quoted by the Financial Times as saying.

Political parties' needing to consolidate and energize their core supporter bases has been one of the main contributors of brinkmanship. During economic downturns, the surest way to win elections is to turn people's anger and fear against other parties. The target is not to convince voters of a party's ability to tackle the challenges but rather to drive supporters out to vote as a way to vet their anger. Under such circumstances, political parties are often tempted to employ extreme rhetoric and political compromises become hugely difficult.

A way to solve such political deadlock is to introduce mandatory suffrage. Political parties will be less influenced by extreme opinions or politically motivated "core supporters" when everyone has to vote. Mandatory suffrage can help moderate political tones as politicians will need to appeal to a broader public.

Taiwan's small size, dense population, high education level and well-organized household registration system make it an ideal place for mandatory suffrage. The glaring omissions of important policies (power price hikes, U.S. beef imports and the stocks gain tax) in the 2012 Presidential Election indicate a failure of Taiwanese elections to select a government based on merits of policy. Reform is needed to make democracy work better in Taiwan and mandatory suffrage should at least merit consideration.

(More on the issue tomorrow)

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