Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Taiwan's democracy faces its biggest test yet

Flaws with the Referendum Law make the initiative process far from ideal, but today's balloting presents the nation with a major opportunity

By Bruno Kaufmann and Theo Schiller


Today Taiwan faces its biggest test for democracy, going to the polls under the shock of yesterday's assassination attempt on President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮). By taking part both in the elections and the first referendums -- and by conducting this final poll with dignity and correctness, Taiwan can show the whole world that democracy has come to stay.

Yesterday's attack on the incumbent president is unfortunately not the first time that a democratic election and referendum has been seriously disturbed by a violent attack: just a week ago, terrorists targeted the Spanish capital of Madrid, killing more than 200 citizens. Late last year, a man murdered Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh a few days before the country's decisive referendum to join the EU's monetary union. Yesterday, it was Taiwan's turn, shocking a whole nation and putting today's important ballot decisions in question. However, the only right answer is to support democracy wholeheartedly by taking part in today's election and referendum.

Having said that, it is not our role to endorse any available choice in the presidential race and the proposed issues in the referendum. We are, however, very concerned about the conduct of these first nationwide referendums in Taiwan. A failure could be a burden to any further democratization in both Taiwan and South-East Asia.

In this article, we explain why we find it inappropriate to call this referendum "illegal" and to boycott it. We also want to make the case for developing the citizens' political power by improving the law.

Indeed, the world will be watching when the Taiwanese go to the polling stations today. After having developed free and fair elections procedures, Taiwan is now proceeding to the next step, which is giving the opportunity to the people to vote on an issue. This is in line with a recent annual report of the UN Development Program, in which UN experts described the democratization of societies as one of the most important positive trends in the world, and at the same time, defined the further democratization of democracy as the greatest challenge of our time.

As they state, "True democratization means more than elections. People's dignity requires that they be free -- and able -- to participate in the formation and stewardship of the rules and institutions that govern them." Thus even the UN is moving towards direct democracy as a complement to indirect democracy.

This is neither a silly idealistic notion, nor the hobbyhorse of a small group of out-of-touch fantasists. It has shown itself to be, on the contrary, an extremely practical idea.

For example, last year, almost 10,000 referendums were recorded in US communities alone, and since the introduction of local referendums in the southern German state of Bavaria in 1995, there have been more than 1,000 popular ballots.

Direct democracy underscores Jean Jacques Rousseau's idea, which was as simple as can be imagined: People need laws to govern public life, and if everyone is involved in drawing up those laws, then in the final analysis, everyone only has to obey himself or herself. The result is self-regulation instead of the dominance of some by others. This utopian dream of yesterday is more and more becoming the reality of today.

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