Wall Street Journal: "Confident Taiwan"

On Monday, December 1, 1997, the Wall Street Journal published an excellent editorial about the Taiwanese elections in its Review & Outlook section. Here follows the text:

Amid much regional turmoil, Taiwan has reason to be confident. Earlier this year, when Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui was pushing for constitutional reforms, he told fellow members of the ruling Kuomintang that while abolishing a layer of government and bureaucracy at the provincial level might hurt the party, it would be good for democracy. According to that principle, Saturday's elections in Taiwan should also be good for democracy and the country's future.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) surged to win 12 of the 23 contested mayoral and executive posts, and the KMT (Nationalists) lost control over all but a handful of mostly minor municipalities. Nobody in the KMT can be happy about that but the results demonstrate that democracy is functioning well in Taiwan.

That is important chiefly because with the challenges that face Taiwan--especially across the Strait--the country needs to be seen to have not only strong leadership but a confident citizenry. Whatever other messages the voters sent Saturday, by turning away from the KMT they told the world that they are not afraid of change. That suggests a sense of security that will serve Taiwan well on both the domestic and international fronts.

The local races were fought and won on basic issues. Clearly, local KMT candidates paid for public anger or dissatisfaction with the ruling party's handling of public safety and welfare issues at the national level. In an interview with AP-Dow Jones before the election, DPP Chairman Hsu Hsin Liang said his party leans toward small government and increased welfare spending. Though those things seem to us to be mutually exclusive, the larger conclusion to be drawn here is that Taiwan is looking more and more like all developed democracies. Instead of being viewed as objects to be wooed with dirty money, or frightened by threats that only one party is capable of dealing with Beijing, the voters are now firmly in charge and they are telling the pols what they want.

It is also evident that people voted for the DPP without fear of what Beijing might do or say. But it will be interesting to see in the days ahead whether the local shift brings new possibilities in national and international politics. Although the party's openly pro-independence members have now split off to form their own group, the DPP makes no secret of the fact that it is opposed to reunification. As Chairman Hsu told AP-Dow Jones: ``Never, never, never.'' At the same time, however, the DPP is more enthusiastic than the Nationalists about expanding trade and other economic ties with the mainland. Whatever China makes of all this, most analysts are not any more worried about the possible consequences than the voters seemed to be.

Most important of all, Beijing now has powerful new information to consider when it decides whether to use the carrot or the stick with Taiwan. By going to the polls and voting the way they did, the people of Taiwan have sent a signal that they will not be intimidated. Whatever else it has learned, China must now know that threats--even missile tests--don't work.

Change is a sign of progress in Taiwan because it demonstrates that democracy has become a dynamic force. People invariably tire of the same faces and if the opposition never wins that usually means some part of the system is not functioning properly. And the whole point of the exercise is to draw on the collective wisdom of the populace. On Saturday, the voters of Taiwan gave the DPP a taste of power, thereby supplying all political leaders with a new and updated road map to guide them into the future.

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