Civic Tech Fuels Presidential Debate in Taiwan

In 2016, voters in Taiwan took part in a presidential election first: They posed questions to the candidates—and they got answers.


President May I Ask a Question - Watchout - Taiwan 2016 Election

President, May I Ask a Question platform at taiwan.wethepeople.tw

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Case Study:
 President, May I Ask a Question, a crowdsourcing platform that gathered questions from the public
Country: Taiwan
Debate: Vice-Presidential Debate, Dec. 26, 2015; Presidential Debate, Jan. 2, 2016

On Jan. 16, voters in Taiwan elected their first female president, Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, giving her and her party a commanding victory that could potentially alter the course of Taiwan’s relationship with China.

Voters also took part in another election first: They posed questions to presidential and vice-presidential candidates—and they got answers.

Google set up an election hub with information on the candidates, similar to what it had done in 2014. But this time, working with Watchout, an organization known for launching civic tech projects, and Apple Daily, Taiwan’s second-largest newspaper, Google developed a platform to crowdsource questions for the candidates. The site translates to “President, May I Ask a Question.”

“Candidates today want to hear from voters directly about their priorities and concerns, and citizens want their voices to be heard,” said Joy Albert, communications and public affairs manager for Google Asia Pacific.

The set-up was straightforward: After clicking the “I want to ask” button, users could enter their query under more than a dozen categories, including education, economy, labor, and health and welfare. Other users could like the question and share it. The platform received a total of 6,500 questions that attracted 220,000 votes.

Six questions were included in the only scheduled vice-presidential debate, and five questions were posed to presidential candidates during the second of two scheduled debates. The three presidential candidates could also answer questions on the site itself. (You can view some of the responses at the bottom of the homepage.)

President May I Ask a Question - Questions and Candidate Responses

Site visitors can filter by category and see which candidates responded to which questions.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this level of direct engagement between voters and presidential candidates in Taiwan before,” said Albert.

The site launched in October, about six weeks ahead of the official start to the presidential campaign—which lasts only 28 days from beginning to end. Users could access the platform via Google’s election site or at taiwan.wethepeople.tw, run by Watchout, which had initiated a similar platform around the Tapei mayoral election in 2014. There was also a dedicated Facebook page for the project that earned more than 3,500 likes.

Albert said Google partnered with Watchout and Apple Daily to reach more citizens. “We all recognized that encouraging more voters to participate and submit questions would mean a more active and inclusive conversation, and would contribute to a lively televised presidential debate.”

Determining which questions would be asked during the debates was left somewhat to chance. In late December, Watchout spokesperson Zuyi Lin said questions would be selected by lottery, and only those questions that received more than 1,000 votes would be considered for the debates.

Taiwan’s press reported that representatives for all three of the presidential candidates—which in addition to Tsai included Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Eric Chu and People First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong—readily agreed to the format and selection process.

“Each question will be answered by all three candidates, which the KMT finds fair and supports 100 percent,” said Chu’s campaign spokesperson, Hsu Chiao-hsin.

“It allows people to directly participate in public affairs through the internet, which is why it can best represent a diversity of public opinions,” said Alex Huang, the DPP’s Department of News and Information director.

PFP spokesperson Clarence Wu noted that “internet media is changing our political system.” He referenced European countries in which the parliament will debate questions that receive the support of at least 10,000 people, and added: “If this kind of system is implemented in Taiwan, it has the potential to change Taiwan’s political system.”

Young Voters and Civic Tech

Beginning in 2014, political parties started to focus more resources on connecting with voters—especially younger voters—through different mediums, said Gwenyth Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Warwick who is based in Taipei and writes frequently about politics.

The parties had come to realize that younger voters were not as apolitical as was once thought. In early 2014, the student-led Sunflower Movement took hold, protesting the lack of transparency in trade negotiations with China. The protests included a 23-day occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, the largest anti-China demonstration in years. When protesters briefly took over Taiwan’s main government offices, police, armed with batons and water cannons, pushed them out, injuring nearly 200 people. In November of that year, the ruling KMT party suffered a massive defeat in the local elections—a sign of the uprooting that would occur in the presidential and legislative races in 2016.

“The ‘youth vote’ was a crucial part of this election cycle because the youth vote played an enormous part the 2014 election cycle,” said Aaron Wytze Wilson, a journalist in Taiwan who has researched and reported on Taiwan’s developing open-government and civic-tech movements.

Efforts to reach out to voters increased further in the lead-up to the presidential election. Taiwan’s Central Election Commission estimated that 18.8 million people would be eligible to vote—and 1.29 million would be first-time voters who had reached age 20, the voting age minimum (two years older than it is most countries).

Wilson also noted that Taiwan has experienced “a bit of a civic-tech boom” over the past several years, as organizations such as g0v and Watchout have developed tools and apps to help increase citizen engagement. (Here’s an early version of the “Mayor, May I Ask a Question” platform during a g0v hackathon in February 2014.) These projects have been embraced by young and middle-aged citizens, and “President, May I Ask a Question” fit right in.  

Chieh-Ting Yeh, co-founder of Ketagalan Media, which covers news and culture in Taiwan, said he views the platform “as a product of increased youth engagement in the election as much as a contributor, since the youth in Taiwan has in recent years become much more interested in public affairs.”

“I think the fundamental issue in Taiwan is that the youth is facing economic challenges like stagnant growth, high property prices and income inequality, and the youth came to see the ruling KMT’s policy of staking Taiwan’s economy on China as the main culprit. I think these issues with the youth are global, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar platforms pop up in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, or even here in the U.S.,” added Yeh, who is based in San Francisco.

Johnson Liang, a g0v participant in Taiwan, said “President, May I Ask a Question” helped to make the debates “more trustworthy” and, as a result, more interesting to watch. He recalled that in 2014, supporters of Ko Wen-je, an independent candidate who defeated KMT candidate Sean Lien in the Taipei mayoral race, thought the debate questions directed toward Ko were surprisingly harsh. Some voters lost faith in the impartiality of the civic group representatives that ask questions during debates.

“‘President, May I Ask a Question’ allows citizens to participate in the generation process of the questions, which is somewhat more accountable than the citizen representatives,” said Liang, who created a platform of his own during the election, “Political Promises in 2016 Presidential Election,” a reference site for learning what candidates said during a campaign.

“Political Promises” is hosted on hacktabl.org, a tool that generates comparison tables based on Google docs. Liang invited g0v participants to fill in all the proposals candidates made throughout the campaign, with each one linked to source material from the candidates’ websites. At the end of the election, nearly 400 ideas had been cataloged in a by more than 15 collaborators on topics including cross-strait relations, national finances, and industry policies.

“It would be a pity if proposals from the election losers just disappear—these ideas might be a good alternative if the winner’s proposals fail,” said Liang.

A Mix of Questions

Besides being featured on Google’s election hub and on Watchout, “President, May I Ask a Question” was promoted on Apple Daily’s website, one of the most popular news sites in Taiwan. Observers agreed that Google and Apple Daily gave the platform more legitimacy in the debates. But even if they hadn’t been involved, said Wilson, “there would still be a high level of acceptance for this kind of project from the general populace.”

That said, he was somewhat surprised the site didn’t show bigger engagement numbers. Wilson said the most popular question, concerning the candidates’ stance on same-sex marriage, received around 2,600 votes. Though the economy is a major national issue, other questions in the top five dealt with the one-China principle, sex education, nuclear power, and debt incurred by local governments. 

None of those questions were selected in the lottery. Instead, the presidential candidates fielded questions on internet access and the digital divide, the power of judges with lifetime appointments, pension reform, monetary policy and Taiwan’s economic woes, and the failure of the Labor Standards Act to cover employees of small and medium-sized businesses.

At the vice-presidential debate, the questions addressed legislative election cycles, foreign policy and Taiwan’s soft power (including medical and humanitarian aid), control over cultural policies and budgets, transportation project funding, national policy and self-determination, and consequences for legislators with poor attendance records.

The quality of the questions varied, said Wang. A question during the presidential debate that asked how the candidates would reform Taiwan’s Central Bank—based on the assumption the bank was responsible for poor policy decisions—led nowhere. 

“As the question itself came with a controversial presumption, none of the candidates agreed that the Central Bank had conducted wrongful policies and declined to give further comments on the question. In this case, it did not really help improve the quality of the debate discourse,” said Wang. “I would say, as this is the first time for Taiwan’s presidential/vice presidential debates to include questions posed by netizens, there is still room for Taiwanese people to learn how to participate in political discourse in the future.” 

Overall, however, she praised “President, May I Ask a Question” for elevating political participation, noting that it helped broaden conversation around domestic issues of direct concern to voters. “For instance,” said Wang, “candidates were questioned on traffic and labor rights, which were closely related to Taiwanese people’s everyday life.”

Yeh agreed that the questions were a welcome addition to the debates, noting that at the very least, they provided an opportunity for direct engagement. “The fact that this avenue of reaching the candidates was available made the candidates feel much more close to an individual voter,” said Yeh. He submitted a question himself, asking whether the candidates would be in favor of revising the constitution to a parliamentary system.

During the debates, news presenters asked the questions from the public. The number of votes (or “co-signers”) a question received was sometimes visible onscreen while the question was being read. All of the debates were co-sponsored by Central News Agency, Public Television Service, Sanlih E-Televison (SET-TV), Google, Watchout, and four major Chinese-language newspapers: the Liberty Times, Apple Daily, United Daily News, and China Times.  

The Liberty Times reported that the second presidential debate achieved a record-high rating for televised debates in Taiwan. Still, voter turnout was only 66.27 percent—the lowest turnout since the 1996, the first year the office of president was directly elected by voters. Going into the election, polls showed Tsai with a wide lead over both her opponents. Wilson and others suggested that engagement—both on the “President, May I Ask a Question” platform and at the polls—might have been down because it was clear from early on that Tsai would win. 

There’s one more way of measuring the impact of “President, May I Ask a Question.” Following KMT’s devastating defeat, civic groups affiliated with the party organized a forum in February for party chair hopefuls to discuss their plans for the future and to answer questions from the public. The forum was titled “Chairperson, May I Ask a Question.”

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