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Direct democracy calls betray pandering to populist rhetoric
Publication Date : 07-04-2014
The student-led protest, which has been occupying the Legislative Yuan's main chamber for almost three weeks, has made little progress so far in its drive to stop the government-sponsored Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement. Despite the government's recent approval of the “Statute for the Processing and Monitoring of Agreements between the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area” — one of the protesters' four demands — the student leaders have demonstrated with flair that they are just as susceptible to populist nonsense as anyone else. After all, why worry about facts when you know that you can generate a bunch of flag-waving faux patriotism with extremist rhetoric? Here are a few examples:
The students-turned-protesters proposed on Friday the implementation of “direct democracy” to review the draft legislation regarding a Taiwan-China agreement monitoring mechanism, openly showing their lack of understanding about the functioning of a modern democracy. For sure, some of them might believe that direct democracy could help reduce suspicions about legislation regarding mainland China as well as place national and local issues directly in the hands of the people. Regretfully, this concept highlights the protesters' ongoing fantasy regarding contemporary politics and the future of their political movement that has now entered a dead-end.
Strangely enough, students should know that direct democracy won't really help to close the divide between Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties, whose actions are dictated by a “winner takes all” mentality. In a direct democracy, the welfare and economic development of the whole country would be further sidelined for the needs of political factions that will effectively control the (social) media. Inevitably, rule “of the people” will come short of rule “for the people” because decisions won't represent the opinions of a majority of voters who have other things to do than vote on whatever legislation three times a week.
A representative democracy surely allows the Legislative Yuan to operate on a much smaller scale in a minimum amount of time to effectively respond to complex issues that would be difficult for the average voter to understand. Of course most people nowadays do not trouble themselves to be fully informed on political and business topics before they express their opinions, but on issues like the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, some members of the government and legislative body have at least conducted consultations with experts to fully understand the issue before they vote. Educating the whole electorate on every issue would be exceptionally time-consuming and ineffective in a direct democracy, and if an uninformed electorate were to vote on such topics, the results could be incredibly damaging for the country.
More importantly, the students should know that the welfare of society is always sidelined for the needs of the individual in a direct democracy as the average individual voter always puts his or her needs before those of society as a whole. Even though such self-interest is perfectly understandable, the consequence might be that a law benefiting a smaller group (for example, the protection of minority interests) is not likely to be passed. Unfortunately, we all know that the low-information voter is always cultivated and even celebrated in Taiwan where divisive rhetoric always trumps facts. This is probably why the opposition Democratic Progressive Party is pairing with the students to help force President Ma Ying-jeou to step down by utilizing the current dispute instead of making serious preparations for winning power again.
Perhaps the main opposition party also believes that today's low-information voters are easily bought with fear and spurred into action by political rhetoric that paints the government as an evil behemoth awash in waste, fraud and abuse. The problem with such a conception of “tea party” politics is that “loving Taiwan” doubles as a license to participate in selective vandalism as well as to obey only the laws that are momentarily convenient.
The Legislature protesters' misplaced anger has already driven their movement to a dead-end and it is time for all politicians to wake up before that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, meaning further isolating Taiwan's economy in the region in an undemocratic way.
Time is running out because the tea they're drinking must be intoxicating and they have already lost their grip on the reality of Taiwan's democracy. The last three weeks have so far shown that Taiwan is a very open society with a high tolerance for the expression of all political views. Here, debate is not only allowed but encouraged, so it is maybe time to quit hating the government, stop trying to destroy it and instead try to become more informed and actually participate constructively.