As long as legislators, parties, and voters see electoral advantages in the current format, the momentum for reform is unlikely to accelerate.
Taiwan’s 2016 elections produced the first legislative majority for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and with Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, this presented new opportunities for promoting electoral reforms. Yet, and perhaps in part due to the success of the DPP in those elections, such reforms appear to have taken a back seat.
Whereas democracies more commonly add seats over time, the 2005 Legislative Yuan reforms took the unusual step of reducing the number of seats in half. Public perceptions of the Legislative Yuan historically have been poor (see here and here), although similar rates are frequently seen in South Korea, among other democracies. DPP supporters as early as 2000 called for reducing the number of seats in half, with the Kuomintang adding their support by 2005. As my previous research shows, this has led Taiwan to have one of the highest population-to-legislator ratios among “Free” democracies, (as determined by Freedom House) surpassed only by India, the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, and Peru. The reduction in the number of seats creates a multitude of unanticipated problems, from increased constituency service demands on district legislators to difficulties in managing legislative committees.
The reforms also coincided with the implementation of a mixed member system and required that existing municipal or country districts receive at least one district seat under the new formula, producing malapportionment favoring four counties (Taitung, Penghu, Kinmen, and Lienchang) at the expense of other areas (Hsinchu City and County, Keelung, then-Tainan City, Yilan County, and Yunlin County). Furthermore, success in district races often distorts vote-to-seat proportionality if one party performs particularly well in district competition. For example, the KMT received 44.9% of the party list vote in 2012, but 71.7% of total seats and The DPP received 44.1% of the party list vote in 2016, but 60.18% of total seats. In short, Taiwan’s current mixed system encourages legislative majorities, aiding in the passing of legislation, but at the expense of smaller parties.
Adding seats helps rectify some of the issues of meeting constituency demands and committee expectations. As speaker of the Legislative Yuan (akin to Speaker of the House in the U.S.), Wang Jin-Pyng in 2014 stated that adding seats was open for discussion, yet there was little follow through. Adding district seats could also indirectly increase perceptions of the legislature as a whole. Research on “Fenno’s Paradox” finds that the American public consistently views their own legislators in more favorable terms than Congress as a whole with similar findings in other district-based system. My recent research with Laura Bucci also finds a similar pattern in Taiwan after the 2012 elections, with positive evaluations of one’s district legislator corresponding with a minor boost in positive evaluations of the Legislative Yuan as a whole. Increasing the number of district seats would also aid in giving voice to local issues. However, such reform may not necessarily enhance proportionality, while creating additional concerns such as determining new district boundaries without threatening the incumbents expected to vote on the reform.
Two alternative reforms would enhance proportionality. Party list seats currently only comprise 30 percent of seats and an increase would limit any disproportionality created by district competition. Another alternative is to adjust Taiwan’s mixed system from a mixed majoritarian system to a German-style mixed proportional system, a reform that Tsai supported in 2014 as party chairperson. Such a change would require the allocation of legislative seats to match that of the party list vote, a format that would have certainly aided the DPP in 2008 and 2012. Cross-national research also finds that citizens, including electoral losers, consistently are more satisfied with democracy in countries using a form of proportional representation. However, discussion of moving to a German-style system ended after the 2016 elections, when it became clear that the DPP could win a majority under the existing format.
discussion of moving to a German-style system ended after the 2016 elections, when it became clear that the DPP could win a majority under the existing format.
Nor does it seem that the public will push for reforms. For example, in September I conducted an experimental survey of 510 respondents conducted through PollcracyLab which found that a majority (52.76%) supported making the allocation of seats to the Legislative Yuan more proportional. However, those who were reminded of the 2012 KMT and 2016 DPP disproportional results were far less supportive (35.43%). In both cases, roughly a third neither supported nor opposed reforms. Recent electoral swings reinforce the notion that today’s electoral loser can be tomorrow’s winner. As such, those supporting parties disproportionately underrepresented in terms of how the electoral system translates votes to seats may not view the disproportionality as linked to the electoral institutions but due to swing voters.
Rules for electing legislatures face an inherent tension between those generating decisive results that produce clear majorities and those that provide broad representation to diverse interests. Taiwan’s mixed system attempts a middle ground. The problem remains that additional manageable reforms to enhance the Legislative Yuan are unlikely as long as legislators, parties, and voters see electoral advantage in the current format.