Combined elections might not be a good idea

An opinion piece by Hawang Shiow-duan (黃秀端) in the Taipei Times today points out some problems with the idea of combining the presidential and legislative elections. It begins by pointing out that combined elections are not the norm for country with semi-presidential systems of government.

Taiwan’s system of government is a semi-presidential one. Of the 55 countries with a similar system, Romania, Namibia and Peru are the only ones that have combined their parliamentary and presidential elections. The other 52 countries, including France, hold the elections on separate dates. One has to wonder whether the minority of countries that combine their elections have reached this situation without having given the issue deep thought. In Taiwan’s case, the attempt to combine the elections is certain to encounter several problems that will have to be resolved.

First, the Republic of China Constitution includes the possibility of bringing down the Cabinet in a vote of no confidence. If that happens, the president could dissolve the legislature and call for new legislative elections. Once the legislature had been dissolved, the timing of plans to combine the presidential and legislative elections would fall to pieces. Why, then, should we combine these elections?

The article points out some significant constitutional, legal and practical problems associated with combining the elections. Another problem is that the rules governing presidential and legislative elections are contained in two separate acts. This somewhat contradicts a recent Control Yuan report which claims that combined elections would not violate any laws and would not require new legislation.

I wrote a letter to the Taipei Times in January promoting the idea of holding a referendum on combing the elections in conjunction with the forthcoming legislative election. However, after reading this article it makes me reconsider that even a referendum would be premature unless the legal and constitutional issues were first addressed.

Public opinion seems to favour combined elections. An opinion poll by the pan-green Taiwan Brain Trust showed 57.3% of people were in favour of combining the elections. 49.9% said that if the elections were combined it should not be until 2016 to avoid any problems. The survey also asked about absentee voting with 51.2% opposed and 40.1% in favour.

Electoral reforms are an important part of Taiwan’s ongoing process of democratisation. I support absentee voting and I have also promoted the use of preferential voting. However, any changes to the electoral system should be introduced in a democratic manner which ensures that they do not harm voter’s confidence in the system. It would be best to first introduce absentee voting in a by-election or local election to test the system and win the trust of voters. Combined elections would probably require constitutional amendments and new legislation. It would be very unlikely for this to happen in time for the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections. Although discussion now is important for potentially making these changes in 2016.

I believe that the KMT government’s reasons for pushing these changes may be to some extent motivated by potential short-term political gains. It is almost three years since they assumed office so why are they rushing to implement changes only now as two important national level elections are approaching?

Electoral reforms may be necessary and important but they must not be introduced in a way which undermines the confidence of voters in the system. Despite what some cynics might say I believe Taiwan’s electoral system functions quite well. However, making rushed changes to the system without proper consideration would be a cause for concern.

Update: Another opinion piece in the Taipei Times on 12 April articulates more reasons why combined elections are not a good idea. See Polls merger may be undemocratic.