My Take on Taiwan’s Democratic Development

作者:Li Fan 发表时间:2011-8-26 16:31:47

My Take on Taiwan’s Democratic Development

Li Fan (World and China Institute)

At the end of Taiwan’s 2008 election, Ma Ying-jeou celebrated his victory and hailed Taiwanese democracy as the lighthouse for democracy in Asia. But to the general public of China, they have a different impression of Taiwan, one that includes out-and-out fistfights in the Legislative Yuan, rampant bribery and racketeering as well as practices like using gunfire to change election results. In the eyes of some, it is even more serious that Taiwanese democracy has become synonymous with Taiwan independence. How should we look at the changes in Taiwanese democracy and its impact on Taiwanese society? I have visited Taiwan many times since 2001 and observed many and varied elections there. I was deeply inspired by what I saw.

The road to democracy

After the Kuomintang (“KMT”) retreated to Taiwan in 1949, it implemented martial law to secure power; Taiwan under the KMT was a one-party state. Many Taiwanese were persecuted and many lost their lives in events like the 228 Incident and the Formosa Incident. These events are part of the island’s bloody history. After Taiwan democratized, many museums were established to commemorate the history of these incidents for future generations.

In 1987 Chiang Ching-kuo abolished martial law and led Taiwan down the road of democratization. The democratization of Taiwan took place because of two important factors: first, the internal and external changes of Taiwanese society, and second, the resolve of Taiwanese leaders.

First, the development of Taiwanese society put tremendous pressure on the KMT government. The middle class matured while Taiwan enjoyed economic accomplishment in the 1970s. Meanwhile Taiwan opened to the world and many Taiwanese traveled abroad and gained exposure to many new ideas. Against this backdrop, people demanded for more freedom of speech and assembly as well as democracy inside Taiwan. The people demanded more access to participate in politics and public affairs instead of letting the KMT monopolize power. Media outlets sprang up like mushrooms and the government could not shut them down fast enough. A large number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also emerged. Meanwhile, the international political arena also went through huge changes. China was admitted to the United Nations (UN) at the expense of Taiwan, which sent shockwaves across the island. The change brought to the world order by China through it its open door reform in the late 1970s squeezed Taiwan.

The internal and external pressures presented a huge challenge to the KMT government and forced Taiwan’s leaders to regroup. Finally, responding to people’s demands, martial law was lifted in 1987. Media and societal controls were relaxed. Taiwanese people were allowed to visit relatives in China.

The abolition of martial law and opening of the media led the way to Taiwan’s democratization. In hindsight, we can see it did not stir up political turbulence, nor did it do much harm to economic development. A relatively moderate means was used to transform towards democracy. The opposition quickly formed the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The spate of arrests anticipated by the opposition party members did not occur. Chiang silently admitted the party’s existence, which indicated a huge political change.

Taiwan’s democratization also gradually caused internal changes in the KMT. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the issue of appointed and directly elected officials between two factions caused the first rift of the KMT. The New Party faction left and became a robust opposition party. Taiwan’s democratization movement finally held an election for the top leader by popular vote. The unprecedented general election took place in 1996. Elections are the most important component in a democratic system, so it is fair to say democracy genuinely took place in Taiwan from 1996 onwards. In the 1996 election, despite facing a gamut of competitors, the KMT easily won and remained in power. In the 2000 election, the KMT faced an internal faction. James Soong fell out with the KMT leadership and left the party to run as an independent candidate. Soong’s independent campaign split the KMT and diluted its votes, which resulted in Chen Shui-bian winning the election with 39.3 percent of the vote. In the 2004 election, the KMT teamed up with the Pan-Blue camp and ran James Soong and Lien Chan. The duo supposedly had a good chance of winning, and may have if not for the 3-19 Shooting Incident. The DPP won again but only marginally. It was not until 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou and running mate Vincent C. Siew Wan-chang regrouped the Pan-Blue camp and finally regained power after eight years.

Taiwan’s accomplishment in democracy

The Taiwanese democratization process has waded through obstacles along the way. A number of important political systems were set up in the two decades after the abolition of martial law:

A fair electoral system is in place. The legitimacy of Taiwan’s government gradually transitioned from the KMT one-party state after its relocation to Taiwan to that of election-based leadership changes. During the early days of the KMT in Taiwan, there existed some grassroots level elections such as village head and local council elections. But these elections were often rigged by the KMT and bribery was common. The KMT government once characterized these election problems as “Taiwanese-style democracy” and flaunted them to the distain of Taiwanese society. As Taiwanese civil society developed and the middle class emerged, it was realized that the middle class would have a chance to win grassroots level elections. In the late 1980s, the Taiwanese electoral system slowly improved due to social pressure. A neutral election committee was set up and open and fair election procedures were introduced.

Now there are many types of elections in Taiwan, for example: Legislative Yuan, village head, township chief, township councilman, etc., and there are proper procedures for all these elections. Election violations and rigging during the voting and vote-counting stages are barely possible. Having said that, Taiwan has a fair share of election problems, including the irrepressible problem of election bribery, plausible manipulation by underground banks and bookmakers of illegal gambling rings as well as the often criticized issue of whether shooting incidents swayed election results. The authorities have made great efforts to maintain the fairness of elections, for example, cracking down on election bribery and offering rewards for reporting bribery. Therefore, in terms of an electoral framework, the Taiwanese system is basically an institutionalized and legitimate system which can ensure freedom and fairness in elections. The international community also recognizes the Taiwanese system to be fair and just. It is fair to say elections have been instrumental to the Taiwan’s democratization.

The two-party system has now been established. After the KMT retreated to Taiwan, the local people were oppressed after the 228 Incident. The KMT enjoyed one-party rule in Taiwan, practically monopolizing Taiwanese politics. There were unsuccessful attempts to build an opposition party by intellectuals. A viable opposition party did not emerge in Taiwan until the late 1980s. The opposition party was weak early on but managed to seize power for the first time in 2000. The KMT’s power deteriorated during the DPP’s eight years in power. In the 2008 election, Ma led the Pan-Blue coalition and won in a landslide, dealing a blow to the morale of the DPP, causing internal faction, so much so that people predicted the DPP would not be able to make a comeback. But during the 2009 mayoral elections and 2010 metropolitan elections the DPP held its own.

Thus, a two-party system has clearly emerged in Taiwanese politics. Their strengths match each other and it is not possible for one party to completely shut the other party out. There are some other political parties which offer alternative views, but none are large enough to challenge the two main parties. The Taiwanese political arena has emerged from a multi-party system made up of the KMT, the New Party, the People First Party and the DPP during the early phase of democratization to a de facto two party system. Their respective constituents have become more defined; the KMT represents non-native Taiwanese and well-off urbanites while the DPP mostly represents native Taiwanese and rural areas. Geographically, a blue north and green south political landscape has emerged.

A democratic political system has taken hold. According to international theories of democratic consolidation, it takes a new democracy two rounds of alternate governance to consolidate. In other words, a new democracy may have a relatively sound electoral system but if the governing party loses an election and fails to hand over power, or tries to create chaos in the power transition process, this would prove democracy has failed. If the transition of power is smooth during two consecutive rounds of alternate governance, it means the core rules of democracy have been accepted by the people and political elites and that democracy will continue. Taiwan’s experience basically fits into this theory. In 2000, the DPP took over power peacefully from the KMT which had been in power for 55 years and initiated the first round of alternate governance. In 2008, after the DPP was in power for eight years, it peacefully handed power over to the KMT, which began the second round of alternate governance. The political parties admitted the legitimacy of elections evidenced by two smooth power transitions. Smooth transition of political power as part of democracy is accepted by Taiwanese society, the first we’ve seen in Chinese political and cultural ecology. Two rounds of alternate governance has made election-based political legitimacy a value in Taiwanese political culture.

Even though there is no serious turbulence in Taiwan’s democratization process, it is not without problems. There are two kinds of problems, one is historical and the other is developmental. The main historical issue is national identity; its ideological manifestation is the stance on independence. This is an historical issue and has turned into a tool for the DPP to mobilize support from non-native Taiwanese to support the DPP. The KMT advocates for development and reconciliation of the cross-strait relationship, which is often criticized by the DPP as betrayal of Taiwan. The two main issues of national identity and independence continue to shape Taiwanese democratic development and remain distinct features of the two parties. They are very real issues that are difficult to resolve.

Brawls in the Legislative Yuan and in-party strife with no sign of compromise or dialogue are transitional problems of Taiwan’s democratization process. Many legislators who are eager fight do it for show, to impress constituents. When the camera moves away, their hostility subsides. When combatants see each other at a restaurant, they often even courteously greet each other.

In addition, there are other issues. For example, both the DPP and KMT are criticized as grossly incompetent—impressive in campaigning but disappointing in governance. Legislators are often criticized for being uninterested in public and legislative affairs but eager to secure votes by rubbing shoulders with grassroots supporters. All of this shows that Taiwan’s democracy, after two rounds of alternate governance, is consolidated. However, the substance of the democracy needs to be improved. Democracy has existed in United States for over two centuries, yet problems of corruption of power still exist. Therefore, it is understandable that for a new democracy, only two decades old, to have many problems. The same problems were also present in the early stages of the mature democracies of Europe in North America. They were resolved as the quality of democracy improved.

What has democracy brought to Taiwan?

Taiwan has undergone democratization for more than two decades and it has brought many changes to the political system. What democracy means to ordinary Taiwanese people is important. In terms of political development, democracy is not the ultimate goal. To the people, the ultimate goal of democracy is to let the people enjoy freedom and dignity.

The biggest change democratization brought to Taiwan, based on my experience, did not lie in changes in political system, but rather in terms of civil rights. In 2001, not long after the DPP assumed power, I was in Taiwan as a visiting scholar for over a month. Some of my pro-KMT friends and students were wary about the DPP persecuting the KMT. They were very guarded when talking about it. They worried about eavesdropping and backstabbing. Even at public events I was asked to speak quietly for fear of being overheard. In 2008, when the KMT regained power, the DPP feared the same, but nothing ever happened. During the metropolitan elections in 2010, I was in Taiwan and I felt an unprecedented freedom in Taiwan where people were no longer worried about being indicted for what they said.

Therefore, the outcome of Taiwanese democracy, in my understanding, is a surge in human and civil rights, especially after two rounds of alternate governance. For instance, at the beginning of Taiwan’s democratization society needed more freedom. Therefore, it was necessary to abolish martial law and the restrictions on media. The restoration of Taiwanese publishing law became the legal basis for publishing freedom. But in today’s Taiwan the publishing law, which was once so sought-after by numerous Taiwanese, no longer exists. It does not mean publishing freedom does not exist, but rather that freedom of speech in Taiwan is so well-established that it no longer has to be placed under the umbrella of publishing law. Any Taiwanese citizen with sufficient financial means can run a newspaper or publishing house, setting up a media organization requires only a simple business registration.

It has been shown that significant changes have taken place in Taiwan’s democracy and the Taiwanese people enjoy unprecedented freedom or unprecedented human rights. Anyone in Taiwan can feel this unprecedented freedom and dignity. From the perspective of democratic development, democracy raised human rights and in turn, the development of human rights reinforced democratic development. And the one thing which guarantees democracy is rule of law. In the past, rule of law could only be found in Europe and North America (and Japan in Asia). Now it is in Taiwan too. Rule of law, due to cultural differences, was once believed to be difficult to achieve in Greater China.

Originally published in Window on the South issue 441 on July 13, 2011