How about MMP?

I haven’t been inspired to write much about this year’s election.  This is partly because I’ve been busy on other projects and partly because I’m incredibly bored by the election so far.  However, reader Mike recently asked a question that hit me in exactly the right way; it’s impossible for me to resist a question about electoral systems.  So I thought I’d give a lengthy answer in a full post.  Mike’s question is:

 

Hi Frozen Galic. Was recently been reading through Tsai Ing-Wen’s 10-Year Platform, which she is using as part of her campaign. What struck me with more interest was her section on democracy, which proposed to make referendums more reasonable *gasp*, ideas to make the financial activity of political parties transparent to the public, and the adoption of the Mixed-member proportional voting system (MMP) for the Legislative Yuan (the current system that Germany and New Zealand adopts for their parlimentary elections).

I certainly like these ideas, but was wondering what you thought about the MMP system, particularly in the context of Taiwan? I do understand that the political climate in Taiwan is so largely different from that of Germany or New Zealand, but MMP seems to be quite a fair and well thought out system. How else do you think the political climate of Taiwan would change, should it be that MMP is adopted?

 

To be clear, I haven’t read Tsai’s platform, so I’m just talking about MMP as I understand it, which may be different than Tsai’s vision.

 

First, the executive summary.  I think Taiwan’s current electoral system is a disaster.  The current MMM system is prone to too much disproportionality, which leads the party in power to have too much power relative to its popularity.  This is dangerous in a country like Taiwan which faces existential questions that should only be addressed when there is a real consensus, not an apparent consensus that is actually manufactured by the electoral system.  The current system also fails to balance the potential disproportionality of the nominal tier because the (proportional) list tier only elects 22% of the seats.  Technically, the system is MMM, but because the nominal tier is so dominant, it is effectively a modified single-member plurality (SMP) system.  The legislature is also too small.  With only 113 members, there are not enough legislators to encourage specialization.  Moreover, with such a small legislature and a tiny list tier, small parties have very little chance of survival.  Finally, the current system combined with the dominance of the KMT in the north and the DPP in the south leaves too many citizens without a representative from their preferred party in their area.

Would MMP be better?  Almost anything, including MMP would be preferable to the current system.  However, the list tier still needs to be enlarged, and the size of the legislature still needs to be increased.  If MMP would be better for Taiwan, perhaps it still is not quite the best choice.  Party votes dominate the results in MMP, and Taiwan has a long tradition of nominal voting.  A system with a higher degree of proportionality and a ballot that allows voters to choose specific candidates would be more in line with Taiwan’s electoral culture.  This could mean simply returning to the old SNTV system.  Alternatively, an open list PR system or STV system would be quite appropriate for Taiwan.

And now the extended answer:

First, we’re going to need some definitions.  Electoral systems can seem like a bowl of alphabet soup to people looking at them for the first time, so don’t get overwhelmed.  This is just a handy reference guide.

SMD (single member district): a district that elects only one winner.  Currently, Taiwan has 73 SMDs.

SMP (single member plurality): an SMD in which the winner is elected by the plurality rule.  That is, whoever gets the most votes, whether or not they pass 50%, is the winner.  Also called first past the post.  Taiwan currently uses SMP to elect 73 seats in its national legislature.  SMP is also used in the USA, UK, India, and many others.

MMD (multi-member district): a district elects multiple winners.  Ex: In 1995, Taipei County elected 17 seats to the legislature.  The county was not cut into separate districts; all voters had exactly the same ballot.  There are many different ways to determine who wins the seats in an MMD system.

SNTV (single non-transferable vote).  SNTV is an MMD system.  If there are k seats in the district, each voter votes for a single candidate, and the k candidates with the most votes win.  This is the system used by Taiwan before 2008 and by Japan before 1994.

List PR (list proportional representation): MMD system. Each party presents a list of candidates.  Voters vote for a party.  If a party gets X% of the votes, it should get X% of the seats.  Assume party A gets 30% of the votes in a 10 seat district.  It is awarded 3 seats.  These seats go to the first three people on the party list.

Closed list PR.  Each party presents a list of candidates.  The party determines the ranking of the candidates on the list, and the voters can only accept or reject the list.  Taiwan currently uses closed list PR to elect the list tier.  Examples: Spain, Israel.

Open list PR.  Each party presents an unordered list of candidates.  The voters can vote for a specific candidate within the list, and their votes determine the ranking of the candidates.  However, the number of seats each party wins is determined by the overall vote share of all the candidates in the party, not the popularity of any single candidate.  Examples: Brazil, Poland, Finland.

STV (single transferable vote).  MMD system.  Each voter ranks the candidates in order of his or her preference.  First preferences are counted.  If a candidate has enough votes to win, any excess votes are given to the other candidates according to the second preferences.  If no one has enough votes to win, the last place candidate is eliminated and his/her votes are given to the other candidates according to second preferences.  This continues until all the seats have been filled.  Examples: Ireland, Malta.

Mixed member (MM) system.  There are two types (tiers) of seats.  In the nominal tier, voters vote for particular candidates.  In the list tier, voters vote for party lists.  In the prototypical MM system, the voter has two ballots, one for the nominal tier and one for the list tier.  Half the seats are elected by SMP and half the seats are elected by closed list PR.

MMM (mixed-member majoritarian).  The two tiers are independent.  Suppose there are 200 seats, 100 in the nominal tier and 100 in the list tier.  Party A wins 70 seats in the nominal tier, and gets 50% of the vote in the party list tier.  Party A wins 120 (70+50) total seats.  Taiwan currently uses MMM.  Other examples: Japan, South Korea, Thailand.  Italy and Russia both switched to MMM in the mid-1990s but switched away in the past several years.

MMP (mixed-member proportional).  The two tiers are linked.  The number of seats a party wins is determined by the party list vote.  Using the same example, Party A gets 50% of the party list vote, so it should win 50% of the overall seats, or 100 of 200 total seats.  Since it won 70 seats in the nominal tier, it gets 30 more seats from the party list.  If it had only won 5 seats in the nominal tier, it would get 95 seats from the party list.  Either way, it gets 100 total seats.  This is sometimes called a compensatory system.  Examples: Germany, New Zealand, Bolivia.

 

Still with me?  It’s actually more complicated than this, since each country puts in a few unique wrinkles.  So the MMM system in Japan is actually quite different from the MMM system in Taiwan which is different again from the MMM system formerly used in Italy.  There are also other electoral systems that we could consider.  But for the sake of parsimony, we’ll ignore all that wonderful complexity.

 

One thing you should have figured out by now is that there are lots and lots of ways to elect a legislature.  None of them are intrinsically right or wrong (or more or less democratic).  They each have their advantages and disadvantages, so when you think about which system is best for a particular country, you have to think about how each system fits the particular needs of that country.  Eventually, it is simply a judgment call.

 

Taiwan has a long history of SNTV, dating back to the colonial era.  For most of Taiwan’s electoral history, representatives were chosen by SNTV.  Even now, it is still the most common system.  All county assemblies and city councils are still elected by SNTV.  In fact, SNTV is still used in legislative elections to determine the six aboriginal seats.  (We will now continue in the grand tradition of ignoring aboriginal politics by pretending that these six seats don’t exist.  Otherwise, it might get complicated.)

Political scientists generally have a dismal view of SNTV.  It is said to encourage money politics, factionalism, localism, and an extreme focus on constituency service.  Moreover, SNTV places a heavy burden on parties and voters since they have to nominate the right number of candidates and then spread their votes out among those candidates appropriately.  Mistakes are often made, and parties end up with too few seats.  A few years ago, a couple of political scientists surveyed specialists in electoral systems to see which systems their colleagues liked best.  SNTV came in last place.[1]

Personally, I think these criticisms are somewhat overblown.  Localism, factionalism, money politics, and so on exist in a wide array of electoral systems, but for some reason, SNTV gets condemned more enthusiastically than, say, STV.  Also, I rather like the fact that SNTV pays a premium to well-organized and highly disciplined political parties.  Organization is the very essence of politics and should be rewarded.  And even if some parties win a few less seats than they might expect in a PR system, SNTV is fairly proportional.  It’s not perfectly proportional, but it’s close enough.  Nevertheless, even I don’t think SNTV is a great system.  It may not be a disaster, but there are other systems that engender preferable incentives.  I’m fond of SNTV because it is wonderfully complex and endlessly fascinating, not because I think it encourages desirable political behavior.

There had been calls to change the electoral system during the 1990s, but these never seemed to gain much political traction.  This is not surprising.  Electoral reform is generally difficult because the people who must approve it are precisely the people who have been successful under the current system.  The actual reform passed in 2005, and I was quite stunned by it.  Few of the incumbent legislators wanted it, and I doubt the leaderships of either party really strongly supported it either.  However, everyone found themselves in a position where they did not want to oppose it.

Electoral reform brought together several currents.  First, there were the traditional DPP calls for electoral reform going back to the Lee Teng-hui era.  These calls were mostly political theater.  They were designed to highlight KMT corruption, factionalism, and ties with organized crime without really proposing any serious remedy.  To give an analogy, they were a lot like the proposals by the legislative candidates in my district to move the Taipei airport to the north coast and build a new MRT line to service it.  People in my area don’t like the noise from planes taking off at the current airport, so they are happy to hear politicians addressing those complaints and validating their unhappiness, but this is just not a realistic proposal.  Second, President Chen found himself continually stymied by the blue camp majority in the legislature.  As presidents in divided government often do, he wanted to delegitimize and/or cause pain to that opposition, and electoral reform is one way of doing this.  Third, the KMT leadership (as opposed to the blue camp legislators) probably saw that they would do quite well under a plurality system.  Individual members might suffer, but the blue camp could probably count on winning 51% in more areas than the green camp.  At some point, when the pressure from society to pass reform became heavy, the KMT leadership (Lien Chan) made the decision to sell out his members (and all the local factions) and stop resisting the pressure.  Fourth, Lin Yi-hsiung led a moral crusade for reform.  Lin appears to envision himself as something of a Taiwanese Gandhi, and his campaigns for referendum and electoral reform were presented with a sort of moral fervor.  His ideas were “correct” in an absolute sense, and anyone opposing them didn’t understand democracy.  Because of Lin’s personal history, few in the green camp dared to openly oppose him.

I’m not sure about this, but I think it was also Lin who proposed cutting the legislature in half.  The main justification for this was to save money.  The logic ran as follows: Legislators are corrupt, and so if we only have half as many, we can save on half the corruption.  At the very least, we can cut salaries and legislative aides by half, and this will save money as well.  This was a punitive logic.  The president, in particular, was receptive to the idea.  After all, he was fighting the legislature, and this discourse both delegitimized it and threatened to invoke a harsh penalty upon it.

However, I believe that cutting the legislature in half was a terrible idea.  First, in the grand scheme of things, the salaries of 112 legislators and a thousand or so legislative assistants don’t add up to that much money.  Moreover, there might be half as many legislators who can be corrupt, but each legislator now carries double his or her previous weight.  Presumably, each legislator can now extract bigger bribes than before.  I really doubt cutting the legislature in half is saving much money at all.  Second, democracy, like almost everything else, entails certain costs.  Skimping on those costs is a good way to ensure problems that eventually cost you more than you saved.  One thing a legislature is supposed to do is review laws, and a healthy committee system is crucial to this institutional capacity.  Committees are the institutional repositories of expertise.  Of course, there were many flaws in the old system, and committees often did not develop much expertise.  But things were slowly improving.  At any rate, there was a possibility of developing institutional capacity.  In the old system, there were 12 committees with up to 21 legislators serving on each committee.  Now there are only 8 committees with up to 15 legislators serving on each one.  Now each committee is spread much more thinly, and there are fewer junior members to do any of the hard work.  With such a small legislature, it simply isn’t feasible that the Legislative Yuan can ever become a powerful legislature, replete with the institutional capacity to formulate its own laws and effectively oversee the government’s exercise of power.  When the legislature has no internal expertise, it has to rely on the cabinet’s expertise or do without expert advice.  Currently, it mostly opts for the latter course.  Most decisions are made by a handful of party leaders who usually base their decisions on political expediency.  Is this any way to save money?

So in 2005, the DPP leadership wanted reform, the KMT leadership decided to stop blocking reform, and the rank and file legislators from both parties were left out in the cold.  There was a little debate about whether Taiwan should opt for MMP or MMM.  The DPP generally wanted MMP while the KMT generally wanted MMM.  As far as I can tell, these preferences were based entirely on political calculations.  If you expect to win more votes than the other party, MMM is the way to go.  Over the past two decades, the KMT (or blue camp) has usually outpolled the DPP (or green camp).  So the KMT wanted MMM.  The DPP was strategically boxed in.  It wanted electoral reform more (or at least more publicly), and so the KMT was able to insist on its preferred system.

 

So what kind of system do we have with MMM?  First of all, let’s recognize that Taiwan’s MMM system is heavily weighted toward the first vote (the district vote).  73 of the 113 seats are elected from SMDs.  Only 34 are elected from the second vote, the party list.  What does such a small list tier mean?  Well, the list tier is supposed to do a few things.  First, it is supposed to produce a group of legislators whose primary loyalty is to the party and to the national issues championed by nationally oriented parties.  To put it another way, you don’t want everyone thinking about constituency service or the narrow interests of a few townships in some obscure corner of the country.  For the most part, list legislators do a reasonable job of representing national and party interests.  However, one effect of the party list being so small is that competition for a spot on the list is ferocious.  Many list legislators fear they will not be able to win re-election on the party list and cultivate a district as Plan B.  In other words, the list legislators sometimes act a little like district legislators.

Second, the list is supposed to be a survival mechanism for small parties.  Everyone understands that small parties have very little chance of winning seats in the SMDs unless a big party yields that district to them.  However, small parties are supposed to be able to survive by winning seats in the list tier.  Now, there are two things that currently stop this from actually happening.  On the one hand, there is a 5% threshold for winning seats.  This threshold is designed to keep the miniscule fringe parties out of the system.  We really don’t want to have 20 fringe parties with one seat each.  We want all significant interests in society to be represented, but we also want at least a moderate level of interest aggregation.  Most political scientists (and most politicians) around the world would agree that 5% is a fair threshold, not too high and not too low.  In 2008, both the New Party and the TSU failed to exceed this threshold, so they didn’t win any seats.  I have very little sympathy for them in this regard.  On the other hand, what if they had gotten 6%?  What would they have won?  With 34 list seats, 3% gets you one seat.  So 6% would get you two seats.  A party caucus with only two seats isn’t much of a force in the legislature.  You can only sit on two committees, and if one member is sick or out of the country, half your party is missing.  Really, what can you do with a mere 2 people?  You can barely hold a press conference.  In contrast, the German legislature has 598 members, and when a party wins 5% it gets 30 seats.  They can sit on every committee, develop some expertise in different areas of government, and spread out the burdens of political communication, party organization, policy research, and so on among 30 people.  They can even give a few seats to younger members in hopes of cultivating talent for the future.  With two seats, forget it.  Small parties are simply screwed in the current system.

Third, the party list tier is supposed to compensate for the disproportionality produced in the district tier.  SMDs can give one party a very high percentage of seats on a much lower percentage of votes.  For example, in 2008 the blue camp won 82% of the district seats on about 58% of the votes.[2]  The party list tier is apportioned proportionally to each party’s list tier vote share, so the KMT and DPP split those seats 20 to 14 (as opposed to 60-13 in the district tier).  As a result, the blue camp’s overall seat share was pulled back from 82% toward their 58% vote share.  Unfortunately, because the list tier is so small, it wasn’t pulled back very far.  The list tier simply isn’t big enough to adequately compensate for the disproportionality produced in the district tier.

Why am I so concerned about disproportionality?  I’m saying that disproportionality is perhaps the most problematic feature of SMP elections, but others might reply doesn’t seem to be much of a problem in the USA or UK.  That is a fair objection.  The USA doesn’t suffer much disproportionality in congressional elections.  There are various reasons for this, including the regional strongholds of each party, the fact that the two national parties are roughly equal in size, the fact that there are only two major national parties, dumb luck, and several other things that I don’t understand.  For the most part, parties that win 52% of the national vote seem to win somewhere around 55% of the seats, give or take a few percentage points.  But other countries have not had such good luck.  In the UK, disproportionality might be THE dominant fact of politics.  Britain usually has single party government because a single party usually holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons.  However, these majorities are almost always artificially created.  There is almost never a party that wins a majority of votes.  To give a dramatic example, in 1997 Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power in an electoral tsunami, winning 63% of the seats in Commons.  How many votes did they win?  43%.  In a proportional system, New Labour wouldn’t even have been able to form a cabinet, much less had such an overwhelming majority that it didn’t have to worry about dissenters within its own ranks.  This majority was entirely manufactured, and that is not unusual.  The last party to win a majority of votes was the Conservative Party – in 1931.  Margaret Thatcher never won a majority; Tony Blair never won a majority; Clement Atlee never won a majority.  All governed with a level of power that was not commensurate with their support in society.  Somehow, that hasn’t caused a catastrophe in Britain.

I don’t think that Taiwan would be so lucky.  Taiwan faces big, existential questions.  There are important decisions to be made that will affect everyone’s core beliefs about who they are.  These decisions should not be made lightly.  Any decision about Taiwan’s future HAS to have a political consensus underneath it.  Imagine if a party with 40% of the votes but 60% of the seats decided to act as if it had a 60% coalition supporting it and made some decision about Taiwan’s future.[3]  What kind of backlash would that create?  Street demonstrations, riots, a coup, or civil war?  The point is that political parties should not be empowered to make momentous decisions unless they have extremely high levels of support in society.  SMP elections can (and sometimes do) give parties far too much power.

This brings me to a fourth point about the current system.  Most people think that the current system is a disaster for the DPP because it got nearly wiped out in 2008.  There are people who think the DPP was just stupid, and there are people who think that it had reasonable logic but things just didn’t work out as expected.  (For example, one analysis assumed that the KMT and PFP wouldn’t be able to cooperate, and the DPP would win a majority of seats with a plurality, not a majority, of the votes.  The problem is that the KMT and PFP did, in fact, figure out how to cooperate.)  There is also a train of thought that says that the DPP’s primary goal was to consolidate its place as the primary party on the independence side of the spectrum, and it accomplished that by reducing the TSU to zero seats.  I think this misses another point.  The DPP may have lost the 2008 election, but the MMM system (which is really a SMP systems with a few party list seats) might give them a better chance of winning power than a more proportional system.  In SMP systems, small swings in vote shares can cause big swings in seat shares.  When you get close to 50% of votes, you can manufacture a majority of seats.  If there are significant 3rd parties, such as the Liberal Democrats in Britain, you can win a majority with less than 50% of votes.  If you assume the DPP has less than 50% support, this may be their best shot at eventually winning the legislature.  Alternatively, when the choice is between only two parties, the governing party sometimes becomes unpopular.  So the LDP in Japan went half a century without losing an election.  It seemed impossible that any other party could ever win power.  However, in 2009, the DJP won 48% of the votes and 64% of the seats.  It is not a coincidence that Japan had changed from SNTV to MMM.  The DPP might have been calculating that MMM made both ugly losses and big wins more probable.  If you just want to win power once or twice so that you can make a few big changes, that is probably a good tradeoff.  However, these big swings in popularity often don’t reflect a solid consensus in society.  They come and go based on less consequential factors.  For example, I believe that the KMT won 58% in 2008 because of the personal failings of Chen Shui-bian rather than because of a 58% consensus on attitudes toward increased integration with the China market.  It was probably too easy for the KMT to push through ECFA.  In a more proportional system with viable smaller parties, unhappiness with Chen Shui-bian would have been channeled into other parties on the same side of the political divide.  With only two big parties, unhappy voters could only turn to the KMT regardless of whether they agreed with the KMT’s policy choices.  However, once Chen was removed from the scene, that 58% receded back closer to 50%.

Fifth, SMDs have to be drawn.  As readers of this blog know, I have thought a good deal about the redistricting process in Taiwan in 2005-7.  Overall, I think the end product was reasonably fair.  Each camp got something they liked and something they didn’t like.  However, there is little guarantee that this will be the case in the future.  Redistricting presents a tremendous temptation to politicians to bend ideas of fairness as far as they can.  Sooner or later, one side will go too far.  The danger is both that this will create an unfair outcome and that it will create a deep distrust of party politics that could ultimately undermine Taiwan’s democracy.  Why risk this?  In MMD systems, the district boundaries don’t matter very much, so redistricting is mostly uncontroversial.

 

Before I go on to discuss MMP, it should be obvious by now that I don’t care much for Taiwan’s current system.  There are two things that I believe would be clear improvements.  First, the overall size of the legislature should be increased.  How much is a question with no right answer, but I thought the previous size of 225 was just about right.  Second, if Taiwan retains its current MMM system, the size of the list tier should be increased from the current 22% of all seats.  One reasonable option would be to keep the current nominal tier at 79 (73 SMD and 6 aboriginal seats) and simply increase the party list tier to 79.  This would create a legislature with 158 seats, which is not too far from the 161 seats Taiwan had in 1992.

 

What if Taiwan changed from MMM to MMP?  Remember, the big difference is that in MMM the two tiers are independent while in MMP they are linked.  In MMP, the total number of seats a party gets depends entirely on its vote share in the party list ballot.  This change has several repercussions.

Small parties would do much better.  Under the current 113 seat system, a 6% party would win 6 or 7 seats rather than only 2.  That’s a big difference.  A party with 7 seats has a viable future, and we could probably expect to see at least two smaller, more extreme parties along with the two bigger parties (who have to remain somewhat moderate in order to contest the presidency).  Legislators from these small parties would almost all be elected from the party list.

Disproportionality would cease to be a problem.  To give an example of how things would be different, let’s consider the 2008 election.  Only the KMT and DPP exceeded the 5% threshold, so only those two would have gotten party list seats.  (In MMP systems, small parties and independents that win district seats but do not reach the threshold are allowed to keep their district seats, but let’s ignore this to keep things simpler.)  The blue camp won 66 district seats (60 SMD plus all 6 aboriginal seats) and we’ll pretend that those were all KMT seats, while the DPP won 13 district seats.  (Yes, I know there were some allied independents, but let’s keep it simple.)  The KMT won 58% of the two-party vote in the list tier, so they should get 58% of the overall seats, or 66.  The DPP won 42%, so they get 47 total seats.  Under MMP, all 34 list seats would have gone to the DPP.  Final result: KMT 66 (66+0); DPP 47 (13+34).

Note that the small list tier is almost a serious problem in this example.  With only 34 seats, it is barely big enough to compensate for the disproportionality created in the district tier.  If the KMT had won one more seat, the list tier would have been too small to restore proportionality.  Also, note that the KMT caucus is entirely made of district legislators, while the DPP caucus would be heavily weighted toward list legislators.  There is some evidence that the two types of legislators behave differently, with district legislators favoring more parochial interests.  This research is ongoing, and it is not clear when these differences are larger.  However, whether or not it is a good idea to create district-oriented majority parties and list-oriented opposition parties is something to wonder about.

In MMP, redistricting would be much less important.  If you draw funny lines, your party might win one more district seat.  However, your party’s total number of seats is fixed by the party list vote, so you simply win one fewer list seat.  There simply isn’t much of an incentive to manipulate the redistricting process.

On the other hand, in MMP the district vote doesn’t matter a whole lot, and that bothers me.  Why should a voter care who gets elected in her district.  If she spends a lot of time and energy stumping for a particular candidate and that candidate wins, what is the reward?  Her favorite party wins one fewer list seat.  I don’t like the idea of asking voters to cast irrelevant ballots.  Elections should have consequences.

Double candidacy exacerbates this problem.  Double candidacy refers to candidates running in both the district and list tier.  For example, a candidate might be the party nominee in Taipei City District 7 and also ranked #8 on the party list.  If he wins in Taipei City 7, he wins a seat (and his name is erased from the party list, with all the lower ranked candidates moving up one spot).  If he loses in Taipei City 7, he can still win a seat if his party gets 8 or more party list seats.  Double candidacy does not have to go with MMP, and sometimes it goes with MMM.  For example, Japan has double candidacy in its MMM system.  However, as far as I know, all MMP systems have double candidacy.  In Japan, double candidacy has created quite a bit of controversy and dissatisfaction.  With a history of SNTV, Japanese voters were used to the idea that they could vote someone out of office.  However, with double candidacy, it can be impossible to kill a bad politician.  Even if you don’t vote for them in the district, they can still win a seat on the party list.  The Japanese call these legislators “zombies,” and most people think there is something wrong with having zombies.  If you know that both candidates in your district will be elected, one as the district representative and the other as a zombie, why should you care about the district election at all?

(Note: In countries with more of a tradition of party-oriented elections, voters do not seem to care about zombies.  For example, Germans don’t seem to think there is anything illegitimate about it, and they certainly don’t call politicians who lose a district but win a list seat anything negative sounding, such as a “zombie.”  In fact, Helmut Kohl once won a seat this way and then he was elected Prime Minister, so it couldn’t have been that bad.)

So to answer the original question, I guess MMP would be better than the current MMM system.  But it’s not what I would choose if I had my druthers.

 

Taiwan has a tradition of candidate-oriented elections, and the electoral system probably should not ignore that tradition.  MMP is perhaps a bit too party-oriented for this context.  I think the best system for Taiwan would be Open List PR.  STV might also work, though I don’t know if Taiwanese voters would be up to the task of ranking the candidates.  Going back to the old SNTV system wouldn’t be a terrible idea either, though I don’t think Taiwan is going to go back to something it already rejected (and that most political scientists say is a disaster).

 

So that’s my answer.  I’m sure there’s more to say, but that’s it for now.


[1] I attended a conference presentation of this survey.  A member of the audience suggested that the two people who had ranked SNTV as their most preferred system should have their PhDs revoked.

[2] Sorry, I don’t have the exact figure for blue camp district votes in front of me right now.

[3] Let’s be clear.  This applies to both sides.  Any move toward either unification with China or Taiwan Independence without a consensus in society would be a disaster.

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14 Responses to “How about MMP?”

  1. TaroTea Says:

    A very in-depth and well-written article! I have one minor quibble, though. There’s no such thing as a German Prime Minister, only a Chancellor.

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    Sure, the formal title is Chancellor. Generically, the German Chancellor is what is normally called a Prime Minister. I actually thought about that when I wrote it and decided to use the generic term in order to increase clarity for an audience I assumed might not be so expert on German politics. It is kind of fun to see that someone caught that!

    • TaroTea Says:

      Well, being both a German and a political science student, I’d probably feel embarrassed if I hadn’t caught that. But now that I know that it wasn’t an oversight but rather a deliberate choice, I can certainly appreciate the logic behind it.

      Not that this more arcane detail of the German political system matters for the central question of the article anyway… 😉

      • frozengarlic Says:

        TaroTea, as a German, you have some experience with MMP. How do you feel about the system? When Germans complain about their elections (and everyone everywhere complains about their elections), what do they complain about?

  3. TaroTea Says:

    Aside from the universal complaints (all politicians are corrupt, my vote can’t change anything anyway etc.), I think two of the more specific complaints are that

    a) more and more people feel like they are no longer represented by the traditional parties. So they either cast their vote for parties like the Pirate Party or abstain from voting altogether. Periodically, there are also discussions about introducing referendums at the national level to give voters an opportunity to vote on important issues directly.

    b) the current system is too party-centric. Because the party lists are closed, the parties monopolize the nomination process, and there is no way for outsiders to reward or punish individual candidates based on their performance if they have a safe list seat. While I would agree that German voters on average don’t care too much about this problem (I have never heard the term “zombies” or anything similar in public debates or in the context of discussions about electoral reform), I would still argue that there is a diffuse interest in more participation. For example, most local governments have already introduced panachage and/or cumulative voting, and in places without these options there are grassroots efforts to change the system. If I remember correctly, the Social Democratic Party recently even reformed its candidate selection system to allow non-party members to participate in the nomination process.

  4. Rust Says:

    On something totally unrelated, did you happen to gone by the rallies by both parties? I heard there’s some 80’000~100’000 ppl in Ketagalan Boulevard! Not too sure about KMT’s rally in Bangqiao.

  5. Mike Says:

    Hi Frozen Garlic, thank you so much for your insightful responses!

    [Never thought about the Open list PR, but it seems to very suitable option. I personally think that STV would be too difficult for most of the population, and even if they voted for a party “ticket”/ preference, the redistricting of the current Legislature have shown us that certain parties lack the mathematical skills to deal with those, namely the D**]

    I know that some of the common complaints about MMP include:

    a) The back-door idea of politicians who lose in their electorate but are saved by their high placing in the party list, which you’ve mentioned already.

    b) (Unfair) Proportionality problems/ Wasted votes – e.g. in certain systems, there are two thresholds for getting a proportional share of seats – firstly, winning a certain percentage of the party vote, and secondly, winning a minimum number of electorates. For the sake of example, let’s say in a 100 seat Parliament X, you must win a minimum of 5% or 2 electorate seats. Party A may win 4.5% of the party votes and no electorate and are therefore not represented in parliament, while Party B may win 2 electorates and 4.0% of the party votes, and hence be entitle to 4 seats altogether in parliament, despite winning less party votes than Party A. Party A’s votes are also now, “wasted” votes.

    c) Inefficient government, as usually the “winning” party will win only a plurality, they usually must engage in a coalition or supply and confidence agreement, which may mean making concessions on their visions, that the voters would have voted for them on, and also the weakner governemnt versus the strong check of balance which parliament now holds.

    d) King-maker minor parties who enters coalition or supply and confidence agreement, which may tip the balance, especially if the minor party did not make it clear which major party they were going to back.

    e) Overhang parliaments may result if a party wins more electorates than their share of party votes.

    I personally think that in the context of Taiwan, c) and d) would not be a problem due to the very strong blue/ green cleavage, while b) is already a problem in the current system.

  6. New TW Constitution (@ROTnotROC) Says:

    English version of the DPP 10 Year Platform coming soon. I know the person who just finished editing the English on Chapter 18 which laid out the policy goals.

  7. frozengarlic Says:

    Rust, I have not been to any rallies yet this year.

    Mike, the only person I’ve ever heard espousing Open List PR for Taiwan was former DPP legislator Shen Fu-hsiung. However, I think it would fit Taiwan’s electoral culture very well.

    On (b), the countries that complain about this kind of disproportionality as horribly unfair are generally those that have a strong tradition of PR and start from the idea that proportionality IS fairness. Taiwan has always had a bit of disproportionality, and I don’t think that the types of cases you are talking about are seen as terrible miscarriages of justice here. Personally, I don’t have much sympathy for really small parties. Likewise with (e) overhang seats. Winning one or two fewer or more seats than the PR vote would entitle you to is not that awful. I’m worried about 20% disproportionality, not 2%.

    Taro, it’s interesting to hear the complaints about Germany’s party-centric politics. As you probably know, one of the major reasons that MMP systems became such a fad in the last two decades is that other countries want to be like Germany, and most political scientists love the idea of strong parties and party systems.

  8. coruscant Says:

    What a great post!!! Even though I seem to be 2 months behind everyone else. I have one question: you think that Taiwan’s current legislature is too small (for roughly 23 million people) to be able to specialize. Do you think that the US congress is the right size for the American population and that adequate specialization occurs in the US? (BTW, I have no background whatsoever in political science so please forgive me if my question is comparing apples to oranges).

  9. frozengarlic Says:

    If you graph population and assembly size for all legislatures around the world, you end up with a fairly clear pattern. Of course, there is a curve, not a straight line, but there is a clear relationship between the two. There are some exceptions. For example, Germany and the UK have relatively large parliaments (roughly 600 for 80m and 60m people); Taiwan’s is clearly smaller than expected. The USA House is just about right on the curve.

    There is more specialization in the US Congress than in any other legislature in the world. Think about the role that subcommittee chair Henry Waxman played in the health care debate. He knows all the details precisely because he has been on that subcommittee for decades building up knowledge. There is nothing like that in Taiwan (or in most legislatures around the world).

  10. coruscant Says:

    I remember back in the 1990s, Taiwan Legislators had a very rowdy reputation (fist fights and all). Nowadays, it seems like the quality of the legislators has improved. Do you think that halving the size of the LY helped to bring legislators under control and improve their quality since there are now fewer to keep track of? Or did the LY improve mostly because of reasons unrelated to halving the LY? (Or perhaps do you think the quality of Taiwan Legislators hasn’t improved at all).

  11. coruscant Says:

    Talk about timing, Taipei Times just published this article: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2011/12/23/2003521428

  12. luyan Says:

    This is probably the best explanation of voting systems that also relates to the Taiwan context. Thanks for a great post. As for your preference for an Open List PR system, do you mean a purely Open List PR system, or a Mixed Member System, in which the list tier is an Open List PR? If it’s the former, could you talk about how the electoral dynamics would play out at the district level? How would candidates campaign (would they campaign nationwide or locally)?

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