Has the DPP Unwittingly Opened the Door to Chinese Election Interference?

Has the DPP Unwittingly Opened the Door to Chinese Election Interference?
Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
Why you need to know

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) must be prepared for election day hijinks courtesy of China, writes Courtney Donovan Smith.

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"I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this – who will count the votes, and how." Joseph Stalin

A friend who is passionate about the workings of Taiwanese democracy recently pointed out privately that with the upcoming concurrent elections and referendums, the Central Election Commission (CEC) was desperately short of people to handle and monitor the voting.

Her comments were alarming on several fronts. Short staffing could cause breakdowns during any (or all) of the voting processes, calling the results into question. Anything – preparing for the voting, handling voters at the booth, processing the results – could potentially fall apart. For example, if there aren’t enough people to handle and process the voters at a polling station, lines could grow, people may roam about unmonitored and some might not even get a chance to vote by the time polls close. Or what if there is a breakdown in processing and tabulating the results?

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Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was all smiles when she fell at a Taipei mayoral rally for DPP candidate Pasuya Yao (姚文智), but a breakdown in election monitoring on Nov. 24 would be no laughing matter.

There are reasons to be concerned both about the CEC’s professionalism and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intervention. Reportedly, anti-marriage equality activist groups have already rigged the televised debates on the marriage equality referendums organized by the CEC by registering as pro-marriage equality in order to get their members “representing” both sides of the debate. That the CEC appears to not have been able to handle this simple vetting of local, openly vocal anti-marriage equality groups is hardly an endorsement of their oversight abilities.

Election chaos caused by disputed results is pernicious on many levels, from the anger and fear it generates along partisan lines to the doubt it casts on the process. In less tense times, it would be alarming and frustrating. But today, it is clear it also plays perfectly into the aims of the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFW) to influence Taiwan society, and they would no doubt play this to hilt to sow as much chaos as possible.

But that’s not all: She also expressed concerns that the CEC was not recruiting qualified, well vetted people. People with a professional respect for neutrality and the democratic process are vital to the actual process of voting. Weakness in this area is building on sand when building on bedrock is vital to withstanding shocks - which the UFW is ready on hand to deliver.

The Taipei Times ran a story on Oct. 25 headlined “ELECTIONS: CEC raises incentives for poll monitors, volunteers.” The headline seemed positive: the CEC finally taking action with almost a month still to go before voting day. That is, until reading this line in the article: “The only requirement to qualify as a volunteer is that they be a Republic of China citizen,” said Chen.

Yes, that’s right: All you need to be is a citizen to be part of managing the very underpinning process of democratic government in Taiwan.

To be clear here on the law: These are volunteers, not police or official public servants. Appointed administrators must be trained active duty civil servants or public school teachers. Volunteers are likely to be given simpler tasks, like helping escort people, carrying things around, and other less sensitive tasks. Even if that is the case, it is still very alarming.

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Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
Read More: INSIDER: Taiwan Is Bungling Its Response to China's Psychological Warfare

How alarming? For example, what if the volunteers come from a local temple to help people in their hometown? In this case, these civic-minded people could very well be affiliated with a criminal gang and political patronage faction, usually of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or potentially one of the pro-unification parties openly trying to undermine Taiwan’s democracy and its very existence as an independent state.

How much would finding the local polling station manned by a group of heavily tattooed young toughs with widely known political affiliations impact voter turnout or voter behavior? Would it impact the behavior of polling station administrators or others with more crucial roles to play in ensuring neutrality? Would opportunities open up for more direct fraud due to understaffing of key, responsible people?

Regardless of who is responsible and how it is carried out, voter intimidation is no new phenomenon in Taiwan. Are there plans in place to handle any of these potential problems – and are volunteers truly equipped to face them should they arise on Nov. 24?

Finding China-affiliated gangsters trawling outside voting stations would certainly be unnerving, but there are all sorts of other possibilities: Any organization or well connected group of people with a political agenda is potentially a risk. The anti-marriage equality movement has already shown its interest in gaming the system through both the introduction of confusingly worded referendum items and their rigging of the televised debate participants. There could well be others, some China-affiliated, some not.

The extent to which China is working actively to undermine Taiwan’s independence, political institutions, democratic system and social cohesion is not only starting to become clearer in its alarming scope, it also appears to be increasing. Even if, after the election, their activities are widely exposed by the press and the government takes action, much damage will have already been done and their actions successful.

That the current administration has created such a wide opening for election interference shows they are still woefully unprepared to handle the challenges China presents. China will probe for weaknesses at any and every point in Taiwan’s society that will give it leverage. The very foundational act of handling voting is a crux point that cannot be left undefended.

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Credit: Reuters / Stephen Lam
A demonstrator holds a sign in support of China during Tsai Ing-wen's stopover after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, Jan. 14, 2017.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pushed to pass the new, more inclusive referendum law that is coming into effect for the first time, paired with local government elections on Nov. 24. The Taipei Times article suggests the administration either got caught totally unprepared to implement their own law, is oblivious to the potential risks, or both – with less than one month left to go.

While responsibility for both the law and implementation are both squarely on the administration up to this point, they may still have time left to prepare and take precautions. For example, the appointed administrators should be given a standard operating procedure to follow if there appears to be a suspicious pattern of association among the volunteers. The CEC should have backup teams of vetted volunteers to switch in in their place.

Advertising could be spread encouraging people to anonymously alert the authorities if they become aware of an organized attempt at election meddling. While it may be too late to vet every volunteer, education spreading awareness and vigilance and plans in place to swiftly take action could go a long way to avert trouble.

Taiwan is ground zero for election meddling, but other countries such as Australia, Canada and the U.S. are beginning to take seriously the actions of the Chinese Communist Party’s UFW in their countries. This election could turn out to be a positive model for how to handle the threat, or a cautionary tale to the world on the dangers of foreign interference in free elections.

Read Next: Taiwan Takes Centerstage in Global Fight Against 'Fake News'

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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