Combine or separate?

The Central Election Commission is set to decide later today whether the 2016 legislative and presidential elections will be held separately or simultaneously. As everyone no doubt remembers, the 2008 elections were held separately and the 2012 elections were combined. I hope they are held separately, though I don’t think the political effects will be that large. Some of the most common arguments are as follows:

  • Combining the elections will save money and reduce social disharmony.

Uggh. I hate this stupid argument. Elections aren’t that expensive to stage. If you need to save money, don’t hold a stupid university games or give sweetheart BOT contracts to conglomerates. For heaven’s sake, don’t skimp on democracy. If the better option is to separate the two elections, then spend a (very) little money and do it right. As for the social disharmony, we live in a pluralist society. Not everyone thinks the same way. There is nothing wrong with this. Harmony, which is usually imposed by social elites, is much more sinister than an open airing of disagreements in the context of an election. Let’s move on to sensible considerations.

  • The legislative election has to be held by mid-January, but the presidential inauguration isn’t until May 20.

To me, this is the most important argument. Since President Ma has already served two terms, there will be a new president in 2016. Four months between the election and the inauguration is a long, long time. Some might argue that President Ma is already a lame duck, and power is already gravitating to the likely presidential contenders. This is true, but until the election there will be some degree of uncertainty about who the next president will be. Once the result is known, all uncertainty is removed. Further, the time between the election and the inauguration is typically taken up with determining the composition of the new government. Elites have a strong incentive to ignore the current officeholders in order to angle for a new position or to curry favor with those who have already been designated. In short, we would face a four month power vacuum. This could easily be shortened to two months by separating the two elections.

If the elections were separated, the legislative election might be moved to its traditional spot on the calendar. Prior to 2008, legislative elections were held in late November or early December. I think this was done in order to avoid the late December holidays and the early January student exams. I never really cared for such an early election because it meant that the old legislature usually reconvened for a lame-duck session in January to pass lots of politically sensitive legislation – ie: stuff that voters didn’t want. Regardless, the point is that separating the elections would allow the legislative election to be held at the optimal time, whatever that might be. (I’m not sure this is possible in 2016 since the Central Election Commission has a number of procedural deadlines, but it could be a possibility in the future.)

  • If combined, the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election. This has several variants:
  1. Media will focus entirely on the presidential contest.
  2. Turnout for the legislative election will be ~80% instead of ~60%.
  3. Small parties without a presidential candidate will be ignored.
  4. The party list vote will merely be a copy of the presidential vote.
  5. Voters will be more likely to decide their district legislative votes based on the presidential races rather than on the individual legislative candidates.

(6a) The KMT will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

(6b) The DPP will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

These arguments are all basically correct. The presidential vote will dominate the legislative vote. However, it will do that whether or not the elections are combined, so the effects will be limited. In 2012, the presidential race completely dominated the legislative election. Almost all the media focus was on the presidential election. For example, there were new polls nearly every day on the presidential race, but there were almost no polls on individual legislative district races. The TSU, New Party, Green Party, and the litany of hopeless parties were almost entirely ignored unless they were able to convince one of the two main presidential candidates to go on stage with them. Likewise, the PFP was also mostly ignored even though it had a presidential candidate. The legislative votes also turned out to be very close to the presidential votes if one looks at the blue/green divide. However, a significant number of voters opted for one of the smaller parties on the party list ballot. Indeed, the TSU probably benefitted, since it never came anywhere close to 9% in the polls.

In 2008, when the two elections were held separately, there was more media focus on the legislative elections. For example, there were some polls on the individual races. Turnout was under 60%. This is important, as it is generally desirable to have as many people vote as possible. For many people, especially those who don’t live near their voting location, going to the polls twice in a short time is a sizeable burden. Nonetheless, the political effects were muted. The media, the two big parties, and the voters all treated the legislative elections as preliminaries to the main event. With just two months between the two elections, the presidential campaign was already in full swing. For many people, the legislative elections were merely the first opportunity to express their presidential preferences. In 2008, there were slightly larger deviances between presidential and legislative vote totals than in 2012, but not by that much. Further, the long-term trend has been toward stronger partisan voting, so the decline from 2008 to 2012 might not even be due to the different electoral calendar.

As for 6A and 6B, most people seem to think that separate elections would be better for the KMT. The logic is that the KMT is unpopular now, and by separating the elections the KMT could allow its incumbents to rely on their individual local popularity. That might be reasonable. However, I’m not sure what effect the lower turnout would have. In 2008, the different turnouts didn’t seem to matter, implying that the two sides failed to mobilize roughly the same number of supporters in the legislative elections. After the 2014 elections, in which there are some indications that the green side was better at mobilization, I’m not sure the KMT should want to compete in another mobilization contest so soon. In a presidential election, given the intensity of the media coverage and the total attention paid by society, just about all of the electorate living in Taiwan will turn out. (To put it another way, the overwhelming majority of the 20% that does not vote live outside Taiwan.) In a legislative election, not everyone in Taiwan will turn out to vote simply because legislators don’t seem as important as the president. You have a much harder task in mobilizing your supporters, and I think this might be harder for a demoralized KMT voting base than for a relatively energized DPP. Maybe not, but my second point is that it isn’t necessarily obvious which major party would benefit from separating the two elections. (My first point is that the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election no matter when it is held, so whichever party benefits won’t benefit very much.)

If it were up to me, I’d separate the two elections in order to shrink the period between the presidential election and inauguration. If they combine the elections “in order to save money,” I’ll puke in my mouth just a bit. Either way, don’t get too excited about which party is getting the advantage, because any advantage will likely be very, very small.

7 Responses to “Combine or separate?”

  1. Pat Says:

    How about pushing the inauguration of the new President up to March 20? I doubt many would be sad to see two less months of Ma.

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    Early termination of the current presidential term might be a bit of an overreach for the Central Election Commission…

    On a more serious note, why not extend the next legislative term so that it ends at the same time as the presidential term? That way both elections could be held together in March 2020. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would require more juggling than you might think. For one thing, the legislative calendar is organized partially around the annual budget. Moving the fiscal year back two months would be a nightmare.

    If you are thinking of shortening the next presidential term by two or three months, well good luck with pushing that constitutional amendment through.

    • Pat Says:

      That comment was in jest, of course😉. On the topic of changing the election schedule though, perhaps it would be best to alter things further by having the legislative elections fall between presidential elections, in the middle of a president’s term? As you mentioned in your post on majoritarianism, the current schedule leaves the country without any sort of significant election for three year intervals which has helped contribute to the mess that has been Ma’s second term. Having a midterm legislative election would help combat that and ensure that legislative elections are not constantly in the shadow of simultaneous presidential races. Not that such a change could be implemented for next years election.

  3. David Reid Says:

    Extending the legislative term so the elections can be more effectively synchronized is a good solution. However, I would suggest an even more radical change of shortening the legislative term so that legislative elections are held in the middle of a presidential term. This would require one legislative term of 2 years before a return to the normal 4 year term. One possible sweetener to achieve this deal would be to increase the number of party list seats.

  4. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    How about moving up the 9-in-1 elections so they’re a chronological midterm? The results have clearly influenced national policy, and I wish they’d happened earlier. This would also make it easier for municipal executives (the most natural presidential contenders) to run for president.

  5. frozengarlic Says:

    The current election calendar is pretty much a disaster. It is a result of lots of individual compromises that were the easiest path available at the time rather than a comprehensive consideration of what the most reasonable overall calendar might be. I’m not terribly optimistic that this will change soon. Still, it’s fun to engage in useless hypothetical engineering sometimes.

    I’m coming around to the idea that the best calendar would be to have an election every two years. The presidential inauguration would be moved up a few months (Feb 20th?) so that the election could be held at the traditional late November/early December time. Two years later, all local elections would be held. However, I would also like to see the legislative term reduced to two years, so that midterm elections would be true midterms, capable of redistributing power at the national level. (Four years terms elected at the midterms, as suggested above, would make the first two years of a presidency extremely awkward. The new president would likely try to run roughshod over a legislature with an outdated popular mandate, and this could lead to extreme executive-legislative clashes.)

    I don’t think the political class will go for two-year legislative terms, but there is one small reason to hope. I suspect Taiwan will be adopting a German-style MMP system within the next few years. MMP elections run much more along party lines, and this will probably make it cheaper to run a legislative campaign. If politicians have to invest less to win office, they might be not be so insistent on a lengthy four-year term.

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