It may have been a bit of an exaggeration last week when Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) said that ever since the DPP first came to power in 2000, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), suddenly in opposition, at every turn "set the public against the [DPP] government."
But he wasn't that far off the mark.
It is undeniable that on numerous issues of paramount importance to the welfare of this country, from national defense appropriation budgets to a Central Election Commission ruling on the voting system to be used in next year's elections, the KMT has acted -- in and out of the legislature -- in ways that undermined the authority of the democratically elected central government and thereby flouted the laws that hold this nation together.
Strangely, despite the roguish nature of the KMT, the party and its leadership have met with scarce criticism from the public and, even more perturbing, from the DPP government itself. As a consequence, the less the KMT has been called to account for its conduct unbecoming a democracy, the more daring its challenges to the law and the system have become.
This bodes terribly ill if the KMT were to win the presidential election. As an opposition party for the past seven years, the KMT has had to keep up the pretense of being part of a democratic system, lest it risk being sidelined or, worse, its actions spark civil unrest.
So the KMT has adopted the language of democracy and, especially around election time, has danced the dance.
But given its historical baggage, its affiliations with the far-from-democratic Beijing and its track record as the opposition, it is clear that if it were to regain power, the veneer of acceding to democratic principles would be replaced by what still lies at the core of the party: authoritarianism.
If, while in opposition, a party cannot respect democratic principles and due process, how can we expect that, once in power, its regard for the constellation of views that constitute a democracy will suddenly reactivate? Let's not kid ourselves: If the KMT were to come to power and were to continue applying its vandal's mindset to governance, the nation's politics would be pushed back many years -- possibly to a time when being a member of the opposition was a dangerous thing.
Democracy is a frail creature. It is not something that reaches an endpoint and then congeals into a fixed state. Rather, it is fluid, a gradient on the spectrum of political systems. Over time, depending on circumstances and who is in power, nations slide back and forth along that spectrum.
It is so fragile that in certain situations -- following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for instance -- even "mature" democracies like the US, Britain, Canada and Australia undermine their own great democratic accomplishments. Some, like the last two, do not even need to have been attacked to drastically alter their systems, trump their checks and balances, clamp down on their media and adopt means that have more in common with Orwellian nightmares than democracies worthy of the name.
Next year's vote will be more than just about which party comes to power. It will be about whether Taiwan continues along the road of democracy or takes a sudden turn and careens dangerously toward authoritarianism.