Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan's democracy is now at a crossroads

By Hsu Yung-ming 徐永明

Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌) raised the question recently: What can Tai-wan do for democracy in Asia?

Does Taiwan's democratization still serve as a model for the political development of other Asian countries? Hsiao focused on the relationship between social activism and political transformation. I would like to put in my two cents here and discuss the unique challenges facing the development of democracy in Taiwan.

Democracy's momentum has been fading since the political transition in 2000. In other words, there is a lack of faith in the superiority of democracy. Comparing democracy with economic development, the public believes the latter is far more important. Comparing democracy with the stability of the past authoritarian era, they believe authoritarianism may be more effective. In both contexts, such sentiments are expressed in the nostalgia for the late president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) -- a phenomenon that has been used for political manipulation.

To our astonishment, studies comparing society's evaluation of different government agencies show that the public has more trust in the military and public servants than in the institutions of democracy, such as political parties, the media and the Legislative Yuan. In other words, the public views the related actors in democratic politics as the sources of social instability -- and as the primary obstacles to economic growth.

Many media institutions and even the political elite have doubts about the competitiveness of the nation's democratic system as they look at China's rapid development. They are becoming envious of the authoritarian development model across the Taiwan Strait. This and the Chiang fever are two sides of the same coin. They represent the waning of democracy and a nostalgia for the authoritarian past. In politics, it takes shape as a conservative environment in tandem with the confrontation between the pan-blue and pan-green camps.

Apparently, this fluctuating public sentiment is linked to the difficulties facing the administration. It is definitely related to the economic situation because democracy is indeed less effective than authoritarian politics when it comes to bringing wealth and stability.

On the other hand, democratic values have not deepened in the public psyche. Much of the time, democracy is equated with elections. Partisan victory and defeat affect the public's evaluation of the democratic system. The development of democracy is now at a crossroads.

It will either wither or deepen. These are the two choices in the development of democracy in Taiwan. To wither means a negation of democracy's superior value, a compromise on political progress and a return to the developmental logic in which the economy overrides everything else. To deepen means facing up to the challenges in the implementation of democracy, invoking direct participation by the public and taking the initiative to correct the defects of representative politics. Only then can we have a chance to bring back a sense of efficacy in democracy.

These two paths are intertwined with the presidential election. They are reflected in the competition between the candidates and echoed in the many referendum issues that have surfaced. Of course, whether to hold referendums has become an issue regarding the future of democracy in Taiwan. From the perspective of comparative politics, how Taiwan walks the path of democracy at this time will serve as a model for both the Asian democracies affected by the rise of China, as well as non-democracies.

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