Several international observers were asked to oversee the January Taiwan presidential election to ensure freedom and fairness in what was predicted to be an extremely close race. Susan Henders, director of the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR), was one of them. She’ll be discussing her experience as part of a panel Tuesday.
“Taiwan’s Super Saturday: Perspectives on the 2012 Polls from Canadian Election Observers” will take place Feb. 14, from 3:30 to 5:30pm, at 857 York Research Tower, Keele campus.
Invited by the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan (ICFET), Henders was one of about 21 scholars, business people, parliamentarians and former government officials from eight countries, including Canada, the United States and several in Europe and Asia. This was the fifth time the Taiwanese people have voted directly for a presidential candidate since 1996. In addition, the legislative elections were also underway.
A street rally in support of the Democratic Progressive Party campaign
“There are always issues of freedom and fairness in Taiwan elections,” says Henders, a political science professor at York. “However, there were particular concerns about this one because the presidential race was predicated to be really close. The ICFET wanted some international observers there who could comment on the spot about what might be going on in the days leading up to the polls and also to provide some judgment about the freedom and fairness of the election.”
Michael Stainton (left) in Taiwan with a poster in the background in support of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party, which was re-elected
Henders found the experience interesting and enlightening, and despite Taiwan’s unique situation and challenges, feels it has something to teach other democracies about the conditions that undermine the strength of democracy and the democratic nature of elections. She will join Michael Stainton, a Taiwan scholar and president of the Taiwan Human Rights Association of Canada who was also a member of the ICFET mission, in discussing their experiences as observers at the Tuesday event.
Stainton and Henders will examine how Taiwan’s democracy is affected by the island’s authoritarian past and its relations with China and the United States. B. Michael Frolic, a York political science professor emeritus, will speak about the election in light of Taiwan-China relations and democratization in other contexts. Lois Wilson, a former Canadian senator and president of the World Council of Churches, who was also part of the election observation mission, will also speak at the event.
A meeting for the Democratic Progressive Party campaign, with the presidential candidate and her running mate on the background poster
In the preliminary report following the election, the ICFET observers noted issues, such as vote buying, were a problem in the Jan. 14 polls.They also noted some misuse of government power and a severe imbalance in party wealth and resources, which undermines the freeness and fairness of elections, but is a result of the island’s authoritarian past. Taiwan was under authoritarian rule until the late 1980s and is still trying to throw off the residue of that period in its bid for democracy.
Taiwan’s particular geopolitical and economic positioning with respect to China and the United States also means that foreign interference in elections remains an issue, says Henders.
The international election observation report stated that both Chinese and former United States officials interfered in the political process. During the election process, Taiwan and international media reported that Chinese officials were using China’s economic power to try to sway the election outcome. In addition, a few days before the election, a former American Institute in Taiwan chairman commented that Taiwan relations with China and the US would suffer if the opposition won.
“It was that kind of thing we were able to respond to quickly,” says Henders. Head of the ICFET mission Frank Murkowski, former US Alaska governor and senator, publicly condemned the remarks saying the US government should be neutral in the election.
The Taiwanese people are particularly sensitive to the views of US and Chinese officials. Although the US doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a state, it is obliged to protect it militarily. “So if a former US official says anything before an election in Taiwan, it gets a lot of attention,” says Henders. As Canada doesn’t formerly recognize Taiwan either, “it is particularly important that Canadian people, by participating in the election observation mission, showed support for efforts by Taiwanese people to strengthen their democracy.”
The Central Election Commission counting centre
Henders says the mission should be seen as a small contribution to the long-term building of a stronger democracy in Taiwan by getting rid of old authoritarian legacies and dealing with the power of China. “We were in many ways impressed by the election. We did not hear of issues with ballot counting or the mechanics of the process while we were there, and the candidates on the whole were forthcoming in answering the questions of our observation mission. Taiwan has achieved a lot.”
The ICFET mission visited Taipei, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taichung and met with candidates or organizers from the three main political parties – the Democratic Progressive Party, the Chinese Nationalist Party and the People’s First Party. They also attended street rallies and campaign events, and visited polling stations. The mission members were present in the Central Election Commission counting centre on election day, they spoke with the media and held press conferences, as well as a public forum on democracy.
‘These kinds of observer missions represent a way civil society groups can be vigilant in helping each other and strengthening democracy,” Henders says.