Taiwan’s Enduring Controversy on Absentee Voting and the Role of Media

Written by Julia Marinaccio and Jens Damm.

Image credit: IMG_5034 by Richy/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

Current election laws stipulate that Taiwanese voters must cast their ballots in designated polling stations on Election Day. However, as Taiwan has refrained from introducing any form of absentee voting (e.g., postal voting), voters residing outside their domiciles are required to embark on domestic or international travel to exercise their right to vote. According to recent estimates, the share of domestic and international residential absentees amounts to approximately 32 per cent.

Over the past two decades, the KMT emerged as the most prominent advocate of absentee voting. But despite many attempts, legislators failed to find a majority for this electoral reform, even in times under the most favourable conditions. Focusing on debates between 2008 and 2012, when the KMT won a landslide victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, we tried to explain why the envisaged introduction of absentee voting failed despite the KMT’s political majority. Our analysis shows that the defeat is primarily owed to pragmatic interests in terms of electoral advantage and political ideologies in terms of how political camps view the relationship with China and evaluate associated risks. However, Taiwanese journalism also did its share. Like the political party system, Taiwan’s existing media landscape is ideologically divided over the question of how to fashion cross-Strait relations. Through their ideological orientation paired with a lack of investigative journalism, they act as mouthpieces of political parties. In doing so, they reinforce existing political cleavages rather than exercising their role as informants and watchdogs.

Failing majority

Contemporary Taiwan’s society and political party system have long been shaped by its relationship with China. Although policy stances of political parties and the general public are not necessarily driven by opposing attitudes towards cross-Strait relations, the historical cleavage between more or less involvement with China continues to characterise certain policy discourses. This especially concerns those related to questions about Taiwan’s international status and its contested sovereignty. One such issue is absentee voting.

Debates on absentee voting in Taiwan can be traced back to the early 1970s. Back then, discussions were at best cursory, also because only a few countries had adopted such electoral legislation that could serve as models. It was not until the turn of the century that political discussions on facilitating voting for residential absentees gained real political momentum. Supported by academia, legislators transformed normative ideas into specific draft bills widely reported in the media. Although legislators of all major political parties initially submitted proposals, the KMT took the lead in 2002 and relentlessly advanced the policy for the following years.

But draft bills never made it through the legislative reading due to the DPP’s resistance. In addition, legislators feared that the inclusion of overseas Taiwanese would increase the risk of China’s interference in national elections, notably through direct or indirect influence on the political participation of Taiwanese businesspeople in China. In 2010, KMT-Minister of Interior Jiang Yi-huah put forward a proposal that attended to the year-long objections and risk perceptions of the Green camp. It limited the scope to residential absentees in Taiwan, who could apply for constituency transfer for then casting their ballots in person in the constituency most convenient for them on Election Day.

Notwithstanding, Jiang’s proposal did not convince the opposition. After months-long unpromising debates, the KMT let go, shifting its focus on an alternative electoral reform, the merging of the presidential and parliamentary elections. Through these positions, it eventually gained the opposition’s support.

Custodians of democracy

Competing interpretations of its purpose very much characterised the discourse on absentee voting. A close reading of proposal bills reveals that, over time, the KMT continually improved rhetoric and argumentation to attend to its critics. Drawing heavily on academic literature, the proposals argue from a normative perspective and recourse on Taiwan’s claim or desire to belong to the global family of democratic countries. In doing so, the KMT could portray herself as a fervent advancer of Taiwan’s democratic order.

In contrast, the DPP was left with no other choice than to push a rival interpretation. It asserted that in the face of the KMT’s declining support rates within the population, the policy merely aimed at securing electoral advantage for the upcoming elections. And it evoked ingrained fears of control and interference of authoritarian forces within and outside the country. Concretely, critics referred to structural legacies of KMT authoritarianism in the police and military and the extension of China’s powerful state apparatus into Taiwan by impeding or manipulating voting.

The silence of the protagonists

Taiwan’s relationship with China manifested, more than in any other topic, in the enduring historical question about the political participation of ROC citizens residing abroad. Debates on absentee voting originate in reflections on how to improve their political participation in elections in Taiwan. But although recent draft bills explicitly excluded them from absentee voting, media, particularly the two most prominent mainstream newspapers, Liberty Times and United Daily, ensured that they remained at the centre of the discourse.

Most questions about the beneficiaries of absentee voting rights in the public discourse boiled down to Taiwanese businesspeople in China and party-state’s potential direct or indirect influence on their political participation. Other groups, for example, Taiwanese students in mainland China were mentioned to a minor extent. But the fact that millions of Taiwanese reside and travel in other parts of the world was literally ignored. Moreover, there were almost no statements on behalf of overseas Taiwanese parliamentarians or official organisations such as the Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission. The lack of investigative motivation to conduct in-depth inquiries also extended into other areas, in which the media preferred to push ideologically motivated propositions instead of informing the public.

Mouthpiece journalism

Although press reports on legislative debates were comparatively balanced, editorials, analyses, and guest contributions in both newspapers strongly leaned towards one of the other positions. Paired with the absence of investigative journalism, the two newspapers thus became principal actors in the discourse backing the arguments of the respective camps they and their readership represented. In the following, we give a few illustrative examples.

Opponents of attempts to liberalise electoral legislation became set on the topic of Taiwanese people residing in China. The Liberty Times printed several guest commentaries, which either directly or indirectly inferred that absentee voting would lead to Chinese interference. This was especially the case for postal votes for Taiwanese people residing in China. For example, in a guest commentary in November 2008, the then DPP-minority leader Lai Ching-te raised doubts that Taiwanese businesspeople and students could cast their votes freely. Postal voting, so the argument went, would change election outcomes. Such statements aroused fierce criticism from advocates of absentee voting, who found their mouthpiece in the United Daily.

An editorial in the United Daily rebuked the DPP’s apprehensions and, using an antithesis, called her ‘undemocratic and unprogressive.’ From the perspective of protecting human rights and reducing social costs, absentee voting is imperative!’ Another editorial asked why the DPP’s slogan ‘Return to your hometown to vote and derive happiness’ should not be integrated into the idea of absentee voting: ‘Why would the DPP—now that MoFA was promoting “absentee voting” so that travellers can vote without actually returning to their hometowns—claim that such legislation would create political confrontation and even “bloodshed”?’ 

The state of investigative journalism

A major explaining factor why the KMT, despite her clear majority, failed to introduce absentee voting is the uncertainty over electoral advantage. Although both parties would probably have benefited from absentee voting, the DPP perceived absentee voting to primarily benefit the KMT. Whereas merging the two big national elections as an alternative electoral reform was a straightforward way to decrease voting costs for the whole electorate, and both parties could showcase their endeavour to improve the quality of Taiwan’s democracy.

Uncertainty over electoral advantage is largely owed to the woeful lack of reliable empirical data on the voting behaviour of residential absentees. The media could have provided some remedy through investigative journalism but preferred to further exploit the ideologically charged issue of Taiwanese businesspeople, significantly contributing to a polarisation of the issue. The fact that many of the beneficiaries of absentee voting did not have a voice in the media raises critical questions about whether they were deliberately excluded from serving political arguments or decided to refrain from engaging in the debate at all. Overall, it draws attention to the state of investigative journalism in Taiwan. Moreover, the public discussions on absentee voting also reveal something else, namely the extent to which democratic institution-building in Taiwan is (still) informed by cross-Strait relations.

Dr Julia Marinaccio is a postdoc fellow at the Department of Foreign Languages, University of Bergen. She studied China studies and political science in Vienna and Taipei. Her research interests lie in environmental governance and political transnationalism in China and Taiwan. She can be reached at: Julia.marinaccio@uib.no

Dr Phil. Jens Damm is an Associate Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen. His research interests include the new media and the Internet, the Taiwanese and Chinese diasporas, and gender studies. He can be reached: jens.damm@fu-berlin.de

This article is published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Media Landscape. The full version of the article will be published in the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS).

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