Most elections in Taiwan take on a carnival atmosphere. The sights and sounds of the election are everywhere. A political nerd like me can’t help but feel that the entire island is engaged in a giant celebration of democracy. Of course, there are people who also can’t stand the whole thing and think of the election atmosphere as a lot of visual and noise pollution, wasted money, and a great inconvenience.
This year hasn’t been like that. There is only a fraction of the sensory stimulation, and it just doesn’t seem like a normal election season. The analogy I can think of is the difference between Christmas in the USA and Christmas in Taiwan. Here, there are Christmas parties here and there, stores might have Christmas sales, and you might hear some Christmas music at Starbucks, but you can ignore the holiday if you want to. In the USA, it is impossible to ignore Christmas because the entire society reshapes itself around the holiday. People put up Christmas trees a month before Christmas, and many decorate their houses with Christmas lights. There is always one family that is a little too enthusiastic and puts up a larger than life nativity scene in their front yard, complete with inflatable Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, and John Wayne as the three wise men. Schools design their winter breaks around Christmas, and every office and classroom has a party with secret Santas. The music starts a lot earlier and is everywhere, from the radio to grocery stores to auto repair centers. You just can’t escape it. Christmas is simply much more intense in the USA. And that’s how elections normally are here. Normally, you can’t escape them. Even if you hate politics, you are bombarded with signs, flags, sound trucks, and candidates all the time. This year, not so much. In our neighborhood, the candidates started putting up a few flags last week. Normally they would be on their third wave of flags by now, and there wouldn’t be any spots left to put the new ones. Here is a bridge in my neighborhood from last year [insert photo] and here is the same bridge this year less than one week before the election [insert photo]. There are a few straggling sound trucks this year, but I think there were more in an hour last year than there are in two days this year.
Why is the atmosphere so dull? I blame the electoral system. I think we have clear evidence that the flags and sound trucks have to with the difference between multi-member and single-member districts. In academic jargon, we like to about incentives to nationalize the campaign in terms of economies of scale. This is a vivid and concrete example of an economy of scale.
So what? Does this really matter? I have two conflicting answers. On the one hand, I wonder whether the low-key atmosphere will affect mobilization. I’m one of those people who doesn’t really like Christmas, and this year I was able to ignore it until it was so late in the season that I never got around to doing anything. There are lots of people in Taiwan who don’t really care about politics, and they might not be inspired (or forced) to pay attention to the campaign at all. How many of these people will decided that it’s not important for them to vote? In an atmosphere that does not suffocate you with politics, some voters might decide that the election is just not that important. [By the way, if this is the case, the normal assumption would be that this is bad for the KMT. The KMT is supposed to have more support among these less passionate voters who might or might not turn out. I’m skeptical about that though.]
On the other hand, looking at the street-level campaign is just about the worst way to figure out how an election is going. You should never guess who will win based on rallies or advertising. Similarly, voters might not need the carnival atmosphere to know there is a big election. Voting is not a very demanding act, and turnout might not depend at all on how suffocating the atmosphere is.
But I miss the carnival.