Taiwan elections and UN representation

This year’s Presidential election in the USA is getting an enormous amount of coverage in Australia, but there’s an election a bit closer to home happening tomorrow in Taiwan (sometimes called the Republic of China). Its implications won’t be anywhere near as big for Australia or the globe compared to what happens in the USA, but every election can be significant, particularly in the south-east Asian region which, for a whole bunch of reasons, still doesn’t have a particularly great record when it comes to democracy.

The election tomorrow is for Taiwan’s legislature. The President is directly elected and that poll is taking place on March 22 this year.  For people with an interest in electoral systems, this will be the first time the legislature will be elected mainly from single member districts – 73 of them, with 34 at-large seats being provided in proportion to the votes given to each party (half of these must go to women). There are also six constituency based seats reserved for Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples (more details here). It sounds a bit reminiscent of New Zealand’s system (except they don’t have a directly elected President of course).

One interesting electoral rule I discovered is that “campaigning on election day is forbidden” – something I wouldn’t mind seeing tried in Australia so we can end the ludicrous and wasteful how to vote card situation at polling booths. This rule even extends to not being able to send campaign related text messages (SMSs) on polling day. I’d be interested to see if it extends to websites.

Taiwan is a country that has made big strides in democratising itself in the last decade or so. In 2000 it managed the crucial test of a post-election transfer of power from the KMT, the long-serving party which had ruled the country unchallenged for fifty years, to the opposition DPP party.

Not surprisingly, relations with China are a big issue in Taiwan. The KMT favours more links with China, and according to this story, that party is expected to do well in this weekend’s elections and is also favoured to regain the Presidency in March.

Taiwan has a population very similar to Australia at a bit over 20 million, and has strong trade and social links to Australia. Those people are in the unusual situation of having no representation at the United Nations. Efforts to gain membership, or even gain some sort of observer status as a ‘non-member entity’ such as currently applies to Palestine, has been vehemently resisted by the People’s Republic of China.

I understand the historical reasons why this is so, but to me it seems quite unacceptable now that Taiwan is clearly democratic. It also seems to fly in the face of the basic international principle of self-determination. It also has the effect of keeping Taiwan out of UN related bodies such as the World Health Organisation.  According to Wikipedia

“Taiwan has applied for participation in the WHO as a ‘health entity’ each year since 1997 but is denied each year because of pressure from China. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and its position is that Taiwan is represented in the WHO system by China. In practice, Taiwanese doctors and hospitals are denied access to WHO information, and Taiwanese journalists are denied accreditation for participation in WHO activities.”

Apart from disadvanatging the people of Taiwan, this sort of situation doesn’t seem very helpful to any of us. Full international cooperation and information flows on health issues can be very important in stopping the spread of diseases – bird flu would be an obvious example. But more broadly, having a country which is reasonably democratic and obvioulsy self-governing being denied any voice in the main global body is simply wrong.

UPDATE: Brief overview of the final results can be found here.

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  1. It doesn’t surprise me. There is a strong preference in the international community for the ‘central government’. It’s a horrible precedent and it means that states are happy to comply with this kind of exclusion of a state that has seceded.

    I don’t think self-determination is a strong principle, but I would be happy to hear of some precedents of its successful use. It doesn’t seem to have much support at all in the anarchic world order.

    Studying secessionist movements, I was VERY DISMAYED by the overwhelmingly large amount of times that central governments have successfully quashed dissent, including ‘democratic’ countries (France, UK). The successful secessions you can count on one hand.

    If its not despotic rule that has quashed self-determination, its the blunt rule of simple, majoritarian democracy.

  2. Senator Bartlett:

    I heartily applaud your efforts to bring Taiwan’s struggle to gain international recognition to the attention of Australians. I urge you to continue speaking out on this issue!

    It is a terrible shame that leading world governments do not band together and offer more support for Taiwan’s bid for maintaining its democractic nationhood.

  3. Senator Bartlett,

    As an Australian who lives in Taiwan, it’s refreshing to read your opinions about Taiwan’s democracy and discover that you have taken the time to give the matter some thought. Kudos to you.

  4. This is important news and I appreciate your coverage. It is especially interesting that Taiwan is giving six seats for Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples to participate. This is a very noteworthy step, as many more “developed” countries still lack any form of representation for indigenous peoples.

  5. As an American, I am disappointed that my nation has failed to do more to advance Taiwan’s cause. Taiwan clearly deserves to be treated as a nation by the international community.

  6. Thank you for doing some research and being outspoken on your views. Hopefully more like you in the international community will speak out on the same isues.

  7. Taiwan has a population very similar to Australia at a bit over 20 million, and has strong trade and social links to Australia. Those people are in the unusual situation of having no representation at the United Nations.

    China’s got a UN veto. It’s as simple as that.

    Right Democrat,

    I think the US is involved in enough international conflicts as it is. Playing a game of brinkmanship with China is the last thing we need right now.

  8. Mark, I don’t think it’s a matter of playing a game of brinkmanship. Do you think that supporting Taiwan’s desire for international representation would be that bad for stability? It might be bad for US multinationals than anything else.

    It’s also not a Security Council matter (where PRC has a veto). It’s a General Assembly matter and China has intimidated enough countries to make sure they don’t get any representation. Sad, no?

  9. I’m from PRC; yet I say, if I were the PM of Australia, I’d officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, even if the price was to lose every deal with PRC, or even losing the whole diplomacy with the Communist Scums.
    A totalitarian mass-murdering government does not deserve to associate with democratic countries; Western democracies have lowered themselves to a level that they’d rather do business with such a regime instead of supporting a lively democratic nation.
    Have they forgotten the Cold War totally?
    Diplomacy is a dirty business, there is no such thing as principle, a sense of justice; money is the core of everything.
    I am proud of our cousins (figuratively) living on that island, who have transformed a dictatorship into a democracy; who have turned a poor island into one of the most prosperous countries in Asia.

  10. Thanks for this post. The election result was a disaster for the Democratic Progressive Party, worse than they had dare fear. However, the presidential election is still both sides to play for.

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