Taiwan’s democracy

Seattle Times
25 March 2004

Note the last sentence

Taiwan and its people struggle with a presidential election in which the winner won by 0.11 percent of the vote and the loser wants the election annulled.

Americans once thought ourselves the experts on elections. In 2000, we found that we were not so smart. Still, a few thoughts for Taiwan, in part from the American experience with tight elections:

That Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and Vice President Annette Lu were shot at and wounded last week may have won them the election. The suggestion by opponents Lien Chan and James Soong that the shooting was staged is difficult to believe. Even if it were true, it would be a dangerous thing to annul an election.

An election is a polling of sentiment on one day. That day cannot be brought back. To annul it means to discard what people said on that one day. Annul an election once, and you will be called upon to do it again. And always by the losers because annulling an election is usually a partisan act. It shouldn’t be done unless the will of the voters on that day is truly impossible to ascertain.

A recount is different. It is an attempt to look more closely at a decision voters already made. A well-administered recount would be useful in the Taiwan election, in which Chen’s margin was some 30,000 votes, and in which 337,000 votes were ruled spoiled.

But that is a problem we learned in Florida. Recounts demand rules, and the rules were difficult to understand and comply with. Florida had rules about who could ask for a recount and when it had to be done, both of which courts changed. Rules had to be made up about counting hanging and dimpled chads. Rules required postmarks on absentee ballots, but that didn’t take into account overseas military ballots. Each battle was partisan.

Finally, Americans reached a result. The method was not satisfying, but it was an answer that could not be appealed, and most people accepted it. Some will never accept it but they are a small minority. At some point in a democratic contest the loser has to give up. They may feel cheated, as Al Gore did in 2000 and Richard Nixon did in 1960, but nonetheless, they give up.

If democracy is intact, there is always the next election. Democracy in Taiwan has taken another step, even if it is a contentious one. With democracy comes tight elections and the clash of winners and losers. Only in dictatorships are elections never in doubt.

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