If a voter in Taiwan took a few minutes to ponder the nation's future, what would he or she see? What would he or she think will be the legacy the first two Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations could leave by the time of the next presidential election?
The first matter for them would be to understand what is going on now, how much of it is public relations hype meant to give advantage to one side of the political spectrum or another, and how much is realistic.
For Taiwan, the first change in government in 2000 inevitably was a very difficult period of transition. There were clearly and predictably many errors being made. By the end of that first term, there were still many laws from the previous authoritarian government to be changed; there were many outmoded rules and traditions still to be addressed; there was still a reluctance to fully utilize a bureaucracy that with some exception is beginning to work for the nation, not for a party; and still a need to effectively communicate with the people of Taiwan as well as foreign governments.
But there were also positive changes made in this period. The government effectively encouraged a much greater involvement of voters not only through the different political parties but also in the growth of non-governmental organizations and in political, civil as well as cultural matters. Despite the political slogans and media hype from all political sides, ethnic divisions have decreased and there has been a greater consensus on what the people want as Taiwan's identity.
Despite the difficulties experienced by his first administration, President Chen Shui-bian (
The ruling party, having had problems with the US in using the sensitive differences with China as a major campaign issue, was on its way back to redressing the relationship. Beijing considerably helped that effort by introducing an anti-Taiwan secessionist law that caused an outcry in Taiwan and was opposed by the US.
The opposition parties in Taiwan soon afterward arranged high-level party-to-party meetings in China, which Beijing raised to the highest level with considerable fanfare. While this is important, its political impact in Taiwan is still not clear.
There were no concessions whatsoever by China on any political issues fundamental to the differences between the two sides of the Strait. China made clear it also would not meet with government officials from Taiwan. It agreed to a line of communications between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan's Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), however. Such an arrangement would not be acceptable in most democracies and can become a matter that could further complicate both cross-strait relations and domestic concerns. In external affairs, China will presumably communicate with the opposition in Taiwan, while the US communicates with the government -- not a comfortable arrangement.
The public debate on cross-strait relations is mainly held among politicians and academics in Taiwan, which other voters must find difficult to understand.
The latter, if they have the time or interest, would hear of the necessity of establishing a more conciliatory policy toward China. This would lower tensions and permit more interchange with China. Will all of this be done with non-governmental organizations, without government participation, except perhaps through party-to-party communications between the CCP and the KMT? More importantly, with a China that has never altered its position on the cross-strait issue, how will this be done without becoming more dependent on China?
Or they would hear about the opportunity now presented for Taiwan to take a tougher stance in establishing the fundamental institutions needed in a separate, normal country (also called nativization). Would a slow, gradual effort to do this, without the tensions an abrupt policy would bring, be better? Would Taiwan be able to survive if the international community, influenced by China, opposes any relationship with Taiwan? Or would a greater number of voters decide it was all too complicated and prefer an understandable status quo? That in itself would be difficult, but if actually achieved, would make it difficult for elected leaders to know, in a continuously changing world, just what direction the people would accept in keeping up with these changes.
Comparing this dilemma with the one that the US faces is not to suggest the solutions can be the same. When voters in the US are faced with difficult and complicated issues, they tend to listen to politicians to ultimately decide which option they prefer.
In the first George W. Bush administration, the initial effort to address important domestic problems did not do well, but Sept. 11 changed the focus to security issues. There was strong opposition to how this was being done -- there still is -- but Bush succeeded in getting re-elected. While security remains the top priority, he has in his second administration spent much energy on lobbying around the country, pursuing the same important domestic issues with better results.
Taiwan seems to be somewhat in the same position. The first Chen administration was preoccupied with security issues. The second administration still is focused on security, with an opposition that is now trying to take that issue to the next election. That issue of course will remain the first priority.
What seems to be left behind are the domestic issues. Voters understand these issues more clearly and that is why Bush is campaigning throughout the US, in effect lobbying for what he believes should be done. Congress may not always agree, but a president lobbying the people often prevails. That same path might well add considerably to the legacy of the current presidents of both the US and Taiwan.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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