Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Polls do not a democracy make

By Jackson Yeh 葉國豪

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is calling the Papua New Guinea diplomatic fund scandal a “fraud case” in an attempt to keep its impact and damage incurred in the realm of administrative and political responsibilities and to clear itself of any responsibility for alleged corruption. The logic behind this is that the public would accept a failed attempt to forge diplomatic relations but would not forgive government officials for lining their pockets with public funds in the name of secret diplomacy. Either way, the scandal has insulted the wisdom of the public and made it lose confidence in the nation’s democratic development.

It would not be a trick question to ask how far the nation is from true democracy. Despite the fact that Freedom House still ranked Taiwan as a “free” nation last year, in the area of “political rights” Taiwan has regressed.

In terms of structural development, Taiwan, as an emerging democracy, has a representative government, regular elections and the freedom of association and speech. As far as political participation is concerned, the turnout for recent elections has remained sufficiently high, but the extreme politicization of public issues has caused people to worry. However, these indexes do not meet expectations for the actual functioning of democracy and its quality.

Democratic elections alone cannot eliminate corruption, guarantee civil rights or keep politicians from violating the Constitution. What political scientists call “non-liberal democracy” is prevalent in many countries such as Peru, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran and Russia. These countries lack deeply rooted equality in civil society and a constitutional tradition of checks and balances, which often leads to politicians who abuse their power, ignore public opinion and infringe upon human rights after obtaining “legitimacy” through elections. The public is thus forced to continue to exercise their “democratic” choice in an environment unsuitable to fair political competition.

Taiwan should remain vigilant lest it slips and turns into a “non-liberal democracy.” It is both internally and externally faced with even harsher democratic challenges than most countries. Over the past 20 years of democratization, Taiwan has produced several charismatic political leaders including former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

However, these politicians often fail to maintain humility before the Constitution or even deny its very existence after assuming office. The contributions made by Lee and Chen to the country’s democracy are contentious because politicians tend to abuse the state apparatus and are constantly involved in corruption and malfeasance after taking office, while the public is unable to do anything about it.

Internationally, Taiwan has a crisis of identity to deal with on its path toward strengthening its democracy. Domestically, it lacks an effective constitutional system. These major problems are not likely to be resolved in the near future. Beijing’s suppression of Taiwan’s international space and the public’s concerns over the increasing outflow of manufacturing appear to have provided a social foundation for the demonization of China. Because of the public’s bitterness, politicians haven’t sought to gain a real understanding of the problem. Instead, their hostile attitude toward China leads to shortsighted cross-strait policy.

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