Taiwan's Democracy Is Maturing

Gone are the times when the self-governing island's politics was the butt of jokes.
A commentary by Philip Bowring
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou's supporters gather in front of their Kuomintang party's campaign headquarters in Taipei, Jan. 14, 2012.

Whatever Taiwanese feel about the results of the Jan. 14 elections for president and legislature, they can all take pride in the electoral process and the maturing of the country’s still very young democracy.

There was a time when that democracy was the butt of jibes by anti-democrats on the mainland, in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Reports of widespread vote buying at elections and scenes of punch ups in the parliament were seen as evidence of the perils of one-man one-vote.

This time there were still a few allegations of vote buying but it is now a rare event and subject to prosecution.

As for the electoral process itself, no one doubted the honesty of the machinery or of the ballot-counting. Losing candidates headed by Democratic Progressive Party presidential hopeful Tsai Ing-wen took their losses with dignity.

The campaigns had been noisy and colorful but peaceful and law-abiding and relatively free of the personal attacks which have become such a common feature of democracy in some western countries.

The victory of Ma Ying-jeou and the continued domination of the Kuomintang (KMT) in the legislature and the endorsement, albeit lukewarm, of cross-straits engagement was very welcome in Beijing.

But the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would surely also have been uneasy at the extent of mainlanders' interest in the process as well as the outcome.

Here were nearly 18 million Chinese people voting to choose their government on the basis of one man one vote. Here were Chinese deciding which candidates and which party to support after a prolonged period of debating and campaigning.

Here was democracy in action, enthusiastic but peaceful with Tsai gracefully conceding defeat and Ma humble in victory, delivering a speech in the rain without an umbrella.
Here was a woman candidate in an election where gender was never a significant issue. If Tsai had won she would have been the first woman leader in Asia who was not the daughter or widow of a former leader.

Internet influence

Official mainland media may have been reticent about goings-on across the strait, but there was no stopping the influence of the Internet and its chat rooms on public awareness.

The Taiwan example can only have heartened the many on the mainland looking pressing for more freedom of debate, more government accountability and some eventual prospect  of the ending rule by one elite party controlling not just the levers of political power but economic and judicial power as well.

Perhaps the fact that Beijing’s censors made scant effort to stop Internet coverage and debate was a sign that the CCP itself acknowledges the need for political evolution.

This election also saw further evolution of the democratic process in Taiwan in an effort to make it more efficient.

The last election, in 2008, had seen the number of legislators reduced by half from  225 to 113 in an effort to make it less unwieldy and able to come to decisions more quickly.

This year saw further reforms replacing multi-member constituencies with smaller, with 79 single member ones (including six reserved for aboriginals) elected on the first- past-the-post principle and 34 elected on a nationwide basis according to party.

For the first time too, presidential and legislative elections were held at the same time—clearly more efficient than having them a few months apart, though there is still a big gap between when the new legislature meets and when the president is inaugurated.

The sophistication of some voters was clearly shown in split voting, whether as a result of personal preferences or for tactical reasons, voting for example for Ma, a DPP constituency candidate while giving their party vote to the People First Party.

Thus third presidential candidate the PFP’s James Soong, a KMT renegade, won only 2.7 percent of the vote but his People First Party got five percent.

This was not a reflection on his personal popularity but on the fact that many of his supporters were fearful that a vote for him could result in a victory for Tsai as happened when Soong split the KMT vote in 2000 and so handed victory to the DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian.

Likewise, the Taiwan Solidarity Union of ailing former president Lee Teng-hui received almost nine percent of the party vote though it won no constituencies. This was clearly a gesture of respect for Lee under whose presidency, during the 1988-2000 period,  democracy was brought to Taiwan.

More improvements

Some commentators suggest that a further improvement in the electoral system would be a top two run-off vote for the presidency to ensure that the winner had more than 50 percent of the vote. Many had expected Ma would win but with less than 50 percent, though in the event he got 51.6 percent.

The election campaign itself was based more on slogans than on well-defined policy platforms.

The KMT focused on cross-straits accord without saying much about specifics for the future. The DPP focused on the rising income gap, static wages, rising house prices and the problem of persisting unemployment but without proposing specific policies to address these.

But that is a fault common to most democracies. In the Taiwan case at least the focus was on these important questions rather than on personalities–not surprising perhaps as both Ma and Tsai are low-key individuals better known as conciliators than flamboyant leaders.

None of this is to suggest that all things are perfect in Taiwan’s democratic garden.

Although the legislature is now of manageable size, it remains a hotbed of vested interests—industrial, local and personal.

Thus, even with an overwhelming KMT majority previously, the executive was unable to fully control the legislative agenda. One result was a trade fight with the U.S. over Taiwan’s restrictions on some beef imports, a row which has halted talks on a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.

Lingering problems

Other lingering problems which democracy has not solved include corruption in some government institutions, including parts of the judiciary, and the power of the bureaucracy which sometimes still behaves as though it were the arm of a one party state.

The DPP had many complaints of use of government money and facilities by the KMT, as well as the natural advantages of incumbency not to mention the bias of much of the media, the wealth of the KMT which still has a large stock of assets acquired when party and state were intertwined, and the influence of tycoons with big mainland interests who came under pressure from Beijing to speak up for the KMT.

The DPP could also reasonably complain about obvious U.S. backing for Ma. Although officially neutral, its offer during the campaign of visa free access for Taiwanese clearly benefited Ma and just before the election, the former head of the American Institute in Taiwan (the de facto embassy) Douglas Paal came out in open support of Ma.

Despite such evidence of unfairness, the result did reflect the balance of popular sentiment in which concerns that the DPP could upset cross straits links just outweighed fears of too close links with China and resentments of growing income disparities in a traditionally egalitarian society.

Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.