In January, voters in Taiwan will head to the polls to elect the next president from at least three candidates Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou You-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). The current single-round, first-past-the-post system is simple to understand, but it leaves Taiwan vulnerable to electoral outcomes that potentially erode institutional trust. A runoff system between the top two candidates if no one wins a first-round majority promises to enhance the legitimacy, inclusivity, and representativeness of the presidency. 

Many presidential systems in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe use a runoff system, as do Indonesia, East Timor, and Mongolia. While such reforms in voting method have not been proposed in Taiwan, in South Korea, the Justice Party and the People’s Party supported runoff proposals in 2016, and some South Korean parties have been using runoffs to determine their presidential nominees.

Proponents focus on several benefits. First, a runoff system would guarantee that the winner garnered majority support. Taiwan’s current system allows a candidate to win the presidency with a mere plurality of votes, such as when Chen Shui-bian won in 2000 with only 39.3% of the vote. By requiring a candidate to secure an absolute majority of votes in a runoff election, the chosen president would have a stronger mandate to govern and implement their agenda and foster stability and public trust. A runoff system could have altered the outcome of South Korean presidential elections in 1987, 1997, and perhaps 2017, while the 2000 Taiwanese presidential election under a runoff system could have resulted in a James Soong presidency. 

Secondly, the runoff system should reduce wasted vote and the spoiler effect while minimizing strategic voting. In a three-way plurality race like Taiwan’s 2000 election, the majority of votes were wasted, meaning they did not result in representation. The spoiler effect occurs when candidates with limited support affect the outcome of the election often by splitting the vote within an ideological camp. Strategic voting arises when a voter opts for a candidate more electorally viable that shares some of their positions because they believe their first choice might lose. Another advantage of the runoff system is that it also commonly galvanize support against extremist candidates if they make it to the second round, as seen in the 2017 French presidential election

In a three-way race in 2024 — assuming Soong will not make his fifth presidential bid at 81 — a runoff system would allow supporters of the last-place candidate to avoid wasting their votes while incentivizing sincere over strategic voting in the first round. The system would also encourage candidates to appeal to voters beyond their base in the second round, and the outcomes will more closely reflect voter preferences in the absence of an outright majority in the first round.

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Supporters of the KMT candidate Lien Chan protest by holding signs while saying, “RECOUNT NOW” in Chinese as tens of thousands of supporters vent their anger over the elections March 22, 2004 in Taipei, Taiwan. Lien Chen filed a complaint at the High Court and are awaiting the decision on a recount, declaring the Taiwan presidential election invalid. President Shui-bian won with a razor thin margin of less than 30,000 votes or 0.2%. As protesters call for a recount, they are camping out all day and night across from the Presidential office, vowing to protest until their demands are met.

Despite proposed benefits, a runoff system is not a cure-all and creates several challenges. Runoffs can increase the costs of elections, including expenses for campaigning, logistics, and ballot printing, all while potentially leading to a prolonged period of political uncertainty and campaigning. Runoffs may also create redundancy, as evidence from Latin America from 1978-2017 shows that 35 of the 47 resulted in victory for the first-round winner. Underfunded candidates also will be at a distinct disadvantage in such prolonged campaigns.

The system could also lead to voter fatigue and lower voter turnout. The additional round of voting may deter some voters who feel disengaged or indifferent after the initial round, especially after the elimination of their preferred choice. This phenomenon is particularly relevant in Taiwan’s context, where presidential elections historically generate high levels of public interest and participation. Lower turnout rates in the second round could undermine the legitimacy and representativeness of the elected president.

While the winner by definition would have majority support, the system may intensify political polarization as candidates might adopt more confrontational approaches to distinguish themselves from their opponents, relying heavily on negative campaigning. Such an environment may erode public trust in the electoral process. Moreover, an elected president will still need a legislative majority to advance their policy agenda.

A runoff won’t prevent allegations of electoral misconduct or a recount as in the 2004 Taiwanese presidential election. In the 2021 Peruvian presidential election, Pedro Castillo beat Keiko Fujimori by less than 1% of the vote in the second round, leading to claims of fraud and calls for election nullification. In the2021 Ecuadorian election, nearly 15% cast a null ballot in the runoff, which was viewed as either a sign of disapproval of both candidates or concerns of first round voter fraud. 

Finally, there is little direct evidence that the public or the parties would support a runoff.  My limited survey research in Mexico and South Korea, two countries with a history of three or more presidential candidates, suggests supporters of parties and candidates that would likely come in first place have no reason to support reforms to a mixed system. As early three-way polls have Lai with a small lead, one would assume the DPP would have little interest in a runoff, especially if one assumes that support for an eliminated candidate in the first round (Hou or Ko) would disproportionately favor Lai’s remaining opponent in the second. The KMT and TPP too may have little interest in a runoff if either believes that polling may underrepresent their support or that support for the other may diminish, perhaps due to strategic voting.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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