by Michael Mo

Photo Credit: Provided by the Author

The following article is part of a special joint issue between New Bloom and Taiwan Insight on the 2024 elections. 

TAIWAN’S ELECTION CAMPAIGNS are undoubtedly vibrant among those in Asia. From carnivals with children’s playgrounds to rallies with music and dances, the vibe attracted people from Asia and all over the world to observe and feel democracy in action. Specifically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) would announce the number of foreign groups and individuals who flew to the country to observe each presidential election.

Nevertheless, there is a mismatch between demand and supply. For instance, Taiwan’s semi-official organisation offered similar activities to both members of the Hong Kong pro-democracy groups and other election observers in their election watch tours. While the former may want to learn more about electioneering, which can be replicated back home, the latter might be more concerned about the election’s transparency and the general post-election political climate. Unfortunately, the format of the election watch tours to Taiwan offered to Hong Kong politicians has been largely unchanged since 2004. More awkwardly, tours focusing on election campaigning have never been offered to pro-democracy activists in fragile democracies worldwide, or at least it has never been publicly advertised.

To enhance the vitality of its democracy, Taiwan’s authorities should adopt the strategy used by other democratic nations of nurturing pro-democracy activists overseas in their election campaigns.

Tours Confused Campaign Watch with Election Watch

TAIWAN’S ELECTION CAMPAIGN watch tours offered to Hong Kong activists were either organized or facilitated by the semi-official body Friends of Hong Kong and Macau Association (FHKMA, 中華港澳之友協會). Whenever there were presidential, legislative, and municipal elections, the FHKMA-organised tours were rarely absent. Nevertheless, the FHKMA website has not announced involvement in these trips on their website since 2010.

Regardless of whether they were self-funded or facilitated by the FHKMA, the decade-long election campaign tours offered to Hongkongers had consistent features: most were timed to coincide with the final Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) stages and on election days. Pro-democracy activists had opportunities to feel the vibe of rallies, buy the campaign merchandise for their references, meet candidates, and, on some trips, listen to post-election analysis delivered by Taiwanese scholars. However, these tours had very similar activities to election observation trips participated by observers from around the world, such as the Association of World Election Bodies.

Mixing campaign watch with election watch and subsequently providing Hong Kong pro-democracy activists with similar tour activities that the observers yielded limited benefits to the activists. These trips did not offer enough opportunities to observe each party’s campaign planning, operation, and management because most trips were made at the GOTV stages. From agenda setting to merchant design and sales to rally event organisation, pro-democracy activists could only observe the end products of the campaigns, leaving them to reference or mimic on their own. Some parties, like the now-defunct Demosistō, might have referenced the merchandise fundraising strategy very well. Still, these references and re-engineering only mimicked the form of Taiwan’s election campaigns without grasping the essence of professional campaign organisation.

Crucially, the tours attended by Hong Kong politicians and activists were not accessible to other activists, especially those from fragile democracies. Nor were these tours publicly advertised or reported by Taiwan’s official or semi-official organisations. Several Malaysian activists I was acquainted with observed Taiwan’s small parties’ campaign in the early stages of the election because they knew the candidates personally. Nevertheless, no structured campaign watch and learning programmes are available for pro-democracy activists worldwide by entities in Taiwan.

What Can Taiwan Learn and Improve? A More Structured ncubation Program to Nurture Democracy Worldwide

LOOKING INTO OTHER established democracies, government-linked institutes are established to incubate the capacities of parties in fragile democracies to organise election campaigns more professionally. For instance, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WfD) has sent campaign strategists of three major UK parties to train Hong Kong pro-democracy party members on campaign organisation and management. Similarly, the US National Democratic Institute (NDI) ran numerous capacity-building programmes offered to members of both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing parties before they shut their office in Hong Kong.

The Taiwan authorities established the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TfD) in 2003, with a similar position as WfD and NDI, “to support democratisation in Asia and the world through creating close collaboration and liaison network with democratic leaders around the world, and strive to promote global democratic development”. Nevertheless, according to their annual reports, no similar incubation programmes or activities for political parties in fragile democracies are offered by the TfD. While the Foundation subsidises Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) worldwide as part of their tasks to “participating actively in the global promotion of democracy and supporting the improvement of human rights conditions”, there have been no Taiwan election campaign-related exchanges offered to party members in struggling democracies provisioned by the TfD.

Better strategising of election campaign observation and exchange programmes will benefit Taiwan’s reputation as a vibrant and respectable democracy in the region and around the world. There are fragile democracies in Asia and other regions facing challenges similar to those that Taiwan’s political parties face during election periods. From fighting against disinformation and foreign intervention in social media to monitoring irregularities on election day, Taiwan’s political parties have experience and know-how to offer to their counterparts abroad.

Currently, the TfD mainly provides fellowships for academics, with a separate category called Human Rights Services Fellowship, which claims to give practitioners of democracy and human rights around the world to “make substantial contributions to democracy and human rights in Taiwan and take valuable knowledge back to their own countries”. Nevertheless, the said Fellowship requires applicants to have a Master’s Degree or at least two years of relevant work experience, plus to promote democracy or human rights in Taiwan. Moreover, recent fellows awarded with the said Fellowship were scholars instead of candidates or party staff in emerging democracies, contrasting the aim to give practitioners a chance to bring their insights and experience back to their homes. The TfD should consider making the current Human Rights Services Fellowship more accessible to practitioners, allowing activists and campaign staff from emerging democracies to immerse themselves in Taiwan’s party organisation and learn campaigning from watching aside or even interning.

Additionally, Taiwan’s Foundation for Democracy (TFD) should establish a new incubation program. This program, involving the major party campaign staff of Taiwan, would enable members of political parties from struggling democracies to learn about Taiwan’s methods of campaign planning, operation, and management. The success of such a new program may save fragile democratic institutions from backsliding; it can also help professionalize election campaigns in participants’ home countries. Crucially, by nurturing next-generation political talents in emerging democracies, Taiwan may yield diplomatic advantages in the long run.

In practical terms, exporting Taiwan’s electioneering may also help the island’s industries rely on these campaigns by expanding their markets. Taiwanese companies have already offered consultancy for election campaigns in Malaysia and the Philippines. It indicates that political parties and candidates in the region have confidence in Taiwanese companies specializing in election campaigns. From props production to merchant fundraising, these companies may benefit from getting contracts from candidates who were once nurtured by Taiwan’s election campaigning incubation programs.

To conclude, Taiwan can offer more to the world through its vibrant, sophisticated, and professionalised election campaigning practices. Rather than letting pro-democracy politicians around the world treat observation trips hosted or facilitated by the island’s semi-official bodies as courtesy visits or food indulgence experiences, a more well-structured programme may incubate new-generation politicians around the world that may speak the same desire for strengthening democracy worldwide, and perhaps create diplomatic breakthroughs in future.

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