The limits of observing elections in Taiwan

Joint presidential and legislative elections are coming in just few days which means that besides culminating election campaign different groups of observers started to pour in Taiwan. It would be difficult to estimate how many of them will be in Taiwan because there is no central coordination and therefore some observers were invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), some by local NGOs and some come on their own.

A Conservative estimate would be several hundred. MOFA claims that in 2008 altogether 290 observers from 38 countries came during presidential elections, although it is not clear to what extent it takes various groups that were not invited by MOFA. Yet, election observation missions in Taiwan are far from those conducted by organizations such as OSCE and due to serious limitations they have very restricted if zero ability to actually asses regularity of elections.

The first burden is a legal one. The Taiwanese legal system does not recognize election observations and thus all observers have no rights to access polling stations in order to be able to monitor the election process. Moreover, foreigners as such are forbidden to come closer to election ballot than 30 meters. However, on the ground it depends much on the police officer whether observers are given access to premises. Considering that polling stations are often in schools, the 30m limit can be in reality much bigger. If lucky, observers can get to windows and observe the voting procedure from outside. That surely is not exactly what could be considered as serious election monitoring.

The second burden concerns capacities to observe election process both domestic and international. On the basic level, observers lack of sufficient training and orientation in peculiarities of Taiwan’s election rules. That significantly decreases already limited ability to observe irregularities or serious violations of the election process. From a domestic perspective, there is no institution or NGO that would provide observation training, organizations such as Citizen Congress Watch (CCW) or Taiwan Front for Human Rights in Election (TFHRE) deal with pre- and post-election period (raising level of policy debate, conducting performance assessment of legislators etc.). As far as international observers are concerned, Taiwanese organizations prefer to invite well-known experts and current or former politicians in order to attract the attention of local and international media. Yet, academic expertise does not automatically imply good observation skills. At the end of the day, it depends on the observers’ individual experiences with election monitoring whether particular mission has sufficient expertise in election monitoring or not.

This is indeed a set of serious limitations. But for MOFA it was apparently not enough when it decided first that this time it will not provide funding for some international observers (as it was the case between 2000 and 2008) only to announce in early January that observers would be invited. Better late than never, that was most likely the Ministry’s thought, nevertheless, a last minute invitation was rather embarrassing in this case. Another issue is to what extent can be group organized by MOFA regarded as truly impartial. However, the same applies to groups that are invited by local NGOs since many of them have their own political bias.

Last but not least, most of the missions operate in Taipei City or other urban areas. Thus, the impact of observation missions is also limited in geographic terms. Besides observation on the election day, missions conduct field trips to other areas of Taiwan where they visit local governments and party HQs. Useful as it is for getting familiar with the environment, it can be considered at best an associated activity with questionalbe meaning considering that information from field trip are not supplemented by monitoring on the election day. There are missions that are exceptions from the general rule. One of them is mission of Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) that has election observation as one of the core activities. ANFREL has skilled personnel and therefore it represent type of mission that is particularly needed. However, due to lack of funding this year’s mission will consist of only 4-5 observers with planned deployment in Chiayi. The report from 2008 mission is available here and serves as a positive example of election observation, considering legal constraints in Taiwan.

Democracy in Taiwan is by all means very positive example of democratic transition which is always difficult process with uncertain end. Yet, it is also still young democracy and professionally conducted election observations with a favorable legal framework can cause no harm, but can help to strengthen Taiwan’s democracy. A particularly painful issue in Taiwanese conditions is vote buying. During this legislative term, 15 by-elections had to be called (more than 10% of seats) and in 4 cases the reason was vote buying. None case was recorded in Taipei where most of the observers stay.

There is certainly a lot of space for improvement but nothing can change substantially until the Legislative Yuan passes a law that will define election observation, including rights and responsibilities of observers. It is role for the civic sector, including organizations like CCW, TFHRE or newly established International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan to lobby the Government and Legislative Yuan to remove unfavourable conditions. Until then, most of the missions will be rather engaged in “election tourism” than election monitoring.

Michal Thim is currently enrolled in the International Master‘s Program in Asia-Pacific Studies (IMAS) at National Chengchi University in Taipei and research fellow at the Prague-based foreign policy think tank, Association for International Affairs.