The Importance of the Invisible Election

This is the last weekend before next Saturday’s presidential and legislative elections.  As of this past Wednesday, no polls are allowed to be released ahead of the voting day.  A sort of ‘quiet’ time, so to speak, to let voters take stock and make up their  own minds without the ‘noisy’ poll results of the past many weeks clamoring for their attention.

Observing the election campaign on the ground since October, I noticed a curious though not totally unexpected occurrence — i.e. the legislative election is largely ‘under the radar’ — a bit ‘invisible’ — in relation to the presidential elections.  News such as PFP chairman James Soong joining the race, the three little pigs, real estate scandals, charges of violation of bureaucratic neutrality, excessive spending on the 100-year celebration, the Yu Chang biotech scandal, the persimmon price raucous, even the US visa-free nomination have flooded the airwaves but they are (made to) focused mainly on the presidential race.

The ‘presidentialization’ of elections is not totally unexpected.  As in the US, all focus is on the presidential race when congressional elections are held concurrently.  Scholars have also observed that even in parliamentary systems, there is an increasing focus on the party leaders who are jockeying to be the next prime minister.  Taiwan seems to conform to these observations.  The extra spice to Taiwan election version 2012 is that by all predictions the presidential race is going to be a photo finish.

So, apart from the brief attention surrounding the announcements of the party list candidates, the media and voters are relatively more fixated on the race for the presidency, seemingly oblivious to the other race.  Yet, in this semi-presidential system, the legislative elections will be a strong determinant on the complexion of executive-legislative relations for the next four years of the next presidency.

From my vantage point here in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, the city’s road intersections are plastered with the usual campaign billboards and flags of the presidential and legislative candidates.  Town hall style meetings and campaign events still occur around town but the legislative campaign here is decidedly low-key, definitely quieter than in the past.  In this pan-Green stronghold, pundits predict that the DPP will win 6 of the 9 constituency seats which leaves the KMT with only 3.  Across the whole island, the closeness of the presidential election is providing cover to a likely substantial change in the next legislative make-up.  Election experts and pundits alike predict that the KMT is likely to scrape by with a small majority due to favorable electoral districting but the DPP will definitely improve substantially and even the PFP may pick up some seats.

Notwithstanding the inattention of the voters and media to the legislative races, the simple fact is that the consequence of this ‘invisible’ election will be very visible indeed.  No one can totally rule out that the specter of a divided government will not come back to haunt Taiwan nor predict with confidence that with a drastic change in legislative make-up the next president (and executive team) will face a friendly and cooperative legislature

Alex Tan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand