Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 8 News List

'People power' could bring disaster

By Lee Wen-chung and Tuan Yi-kang 李文忠、段宜康

Regardless of changes in theories about democracy and the increasing complexity of benchmarks for measuring democratic progress, political participation remains the core value of democracy. The easiest way to implement this value is to let the public manifest its wishes in elections under a representative system.

This means that allotting political power through periodic, fair and free elections with mid-term polls serving as a barometer of the government's success or failure make up one important standard for measuring the level of a country's democratic development. To protect the stability of the system, attacks on democratic election mechanisms should be avoided, since that might hurt one of the cornerstones of democracy. If the president or the government behave immorally or are incompetent to the point that their legitimacy is damaged, these leaders should be deposed through impeachment, recall, a vote of no confidence or at the ballot box. This is how democracy works.

We are not trying to say that popular movements are always a bad thing. On the contrary, in a country where democracy and the rule of law have not been completely implemented, popular movements are the most important source of pressure on the national leadership to implement reform. Even so, the goals proposed by such popular movements must still be achieved and implemented within the system. A typical example is the Wild Lily Student Movement (百合學運) of the 1990s. This could be called the first large-scale popular movement challenging the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, and it was also the catalyst for similar types of political participation by Taiwanese society.

The main demand of the movement was for a new elections for the legislature, which at that time was made up of legislators elected in China prior to 1949. Although that demand wasn't immediately implemented, the process became a major source of pressure on the KMT's authoritarian government. Then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was forced to call a national affairs conference, initiate a series of constitutional amendments, force senior members of the National Assembly and legislature to resign and hold new legislative elections. This whole process represented a peaceful revolution that was welcomed by the Taiwanese people.

It is only when a country's constitutional system falters and all systemic measures lose efficacy -- in particular, when the government uses armed force or other illegitimate methods to overturn a democratic system or an election result -- that a popular movement can legitimately adopt methods to overturn the system. Unfortunately, even this can have unforeseen negative effects on that country's democratic development.

Let's use the Philippines as an example. In 1972, General Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. He then changed the Constitution to cement his dictatorship, and in 1983 killed his main opponent, Benigno Aquino. In the 1986 presidential election, official figures had Marcos as the winner with 10.1 million votes, against Corazon Aquino's 9,2 million votes. Both within the Philippines and internationally, vote-rigging was suspected, and the opposition camp declared its refusal to accept the official result. People rose up in response and forced Marcos to step down in what amounted to a revolution by popular power.

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