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Taiwan's Maturing Democracy


February 15, 2000

By Stephen Vines, whose latest book "The Years of Living Dangerously: Asia From Crisis to the New Millennium" was published in February by Orion Books.

Ironically, the best thing that could happen to the Kuomintang, Taiwan's ruling party, would be to lose next month's presidential election. Naturally this is not the party's view, nor is there any suggestion that the KMT is doing anything other than campaigning vigorously for its candidate Lien Chan. Yet a victory by the opposition would secure the KMT's glorious place in Chinese history.

Were Mr. Lien to loose an open and free election it would mean that for the first time in Chinese history a ruler would be replaced without violence, coup d'etat or a process which excluded the popular will as expressed in a poll conducted under universal suffrage. The KMT has an opportunity to demonstrate that a Chinese society is as capable as any other of transferring power in a peaceful and democratic manner. Moreover - and this is the cardinal point - the very party which once administered a dictatorship has the chance to play a decisive role in making this happen.

The KMT, founded as a clandestine party by Sun Yat-sen, and transformed into a dictatorship with brutal characteristics by Chiang Kai-shek, is unique among organizations of this kind for having turned itself into a genuine democratic party, voluntarily stripping itself of many of the powers which ensured that it would remain in office.

History will look increasingly kindly on the reforms initiated by Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-guo, who began the process of hauling the KMT into a democratic era. His successor, Lee Teng-hui, the first Kuomintang presidential candidate to win a free election, will also benefit from an eventual reassessment of his period of rule. For it was he who finally shed the KMT's illusions of resuming control over the entire Chinese mainland and made the KMT a party rooted in Taiwan.

Now President Lee is campaigning for his vice-president, Lien Chan, to carry on the work. But it is not clear what Mr. Lien has to contribute to the legacy of his two illustrious predecessors. Speaking in Taipei to a group of foreign journalists he stressed his role as the "continuity" candidate - the candidate who could maintain "stability" and, as he put it, "further develop our democratic system."

Unfortunately for Mr. Lien, however, it is clear that his two main rivals are every bit as committed to the same principles. Chen Shui-bian, who is campaigning for the once outlawed and once highly radical Democratic Progressive Party, pledged to the same group of foreign journalists that his party would "demonstrate to the world that we are not trouble makers" and that the DPP would prove to be Taiwan's "most responsible party."

And what of James Soong, the charismatic former KMT leader, who is now running as an independent? "My slogan is change without chaos," he said, "stability to bring progress." No wonder the maverick Li Ao, who is running with the support of the New Party (representing former KMT hard-liners) cheerfully says, "I am competing with four KMT candidates. They are all the same." The fourth candidate he referred to is the tiny Taiwan Independence Party's flag carrier.

Mr. Li has a point. In rhetoric and in terms of party platforms the contenders for the presidential throne have more in common than they would care to admit. However, Mr. Soong also has a point when he says, "the KMT have been in office too long . . . they have too many burdens of the kind of power which corrupts."

Mr. Lien is the underdog in the presidential campaign because he represents a weary KMT which has ruled Taiwan for half a century, and, if its rule over the Chinese mainland is included, could be said to have been a ruling party since 1925.

After his father's death, Chiang Ching-kuo was shrewd enough to realize that an attempt to maintain an indefinite dictatorship could lead to bloodshed. Instead he took the gamble of trying to dismantle the dictatorship, the same gamble taken by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, but infinitely more bold and more successful.

If there are forces in the KMT which believe that a failure to win this presidential election proves that Chiang was both wrong and reckless, they have seriously missed the point. The greatest triumph is yet to come. This would entail losing this election but, as in other democratic societies where ruling parties are defeated, remaining in contention to triumph again in another open contest.

That said, the reformed KMT is no squeaky clean political fighting machine. It retains elements of corruption, vestiges of unsavory patronage and the arrogance of a party in power for too long. However, it has traveled much further from its origins than anyone could have thought possible, yet remained more or less intact.

Perhaps the most stomach-churning aspect of this presidential race is not what is happening in Taiwan itself but the sanctimonious statements emanating from places like Washington and Canberra, where democratically elected politicians are warning their Taiwanese counterparts not to go too far in aggravating the unelected leadership of the People's Republic of China. They say nothing about the fundamental principle of elections, which is that elected officials should first and foremost reflect the interests and views of their electorate.

If the Taiwanese electorate want to be ruled by a party which is disliked in Beijing, that surely is their business. If, for example, they choose the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, the candidate most hated by the old men in Beijing, surely the democratic world has a duty to support their choice rather than warning them against making it. The most exciting thing about the Taiwanese presidential election is that its outcome is far from certain because Taiwanese voters have a free choice.

The same most certainly cannot be said for Chinese citizens who will have no say in the selection of their next president but may find that the transfer of power is accompanied by an outbreak of political infighting which will generate the kind of instability democratic Taiwan has cast to one side.