The first of the televised debates for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson candidates was held last weekend in Greater Kaohsiung. New ideas are needed in the face of the relative ease of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential victory in January and the resignation of DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). However, the debate instead focused on the same old issues.
There is great danger of the DPP getting stuck in rhetoric and adhering to the pattern of corruption and blinkered focusing on cross-strait issues that plagues Taiwanese politics. Alternatively, it might be that a agenda could be forged within the party by systematically combining Tsai’s original electoral ideas, the China question and party reform. If this is done at all, it should be done now.
One of Tsai’s big ideas — before she was ambushed by the issue of who could best capture the support of the US and China over who should run Taiwan — was that of the awkwardly named “consociational democratic system” (whose meaning is not easily translated into Chinese). The Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart developed the term from European experience in his book The Politics of Accommodation, which was primarily concerned with how segmented societies could manage to sustain democracy through power sharing.
Lijphart differentiated between majority-style, consensual and consociational democratic systems. Of these three polities, the first is familiar as having become common in more established democratic nations, while the second periodically arises as a syndrome or a departure of such democracies and is signified by cross-party cabinet coalitions, powerful interest groups, strong entitlements and easily identified “outsider” minorities whose rights are under threat. They also often have federal structures. Tsai clearly stated that this second option was not what she was advocating for Taiwan.
In what Lijphart labeled the “grand coalition” of consociational democracy, the elites “of each pillar come together to rule in the interest of society because they recognize the dangers of non-cooperation.”
However, it must be noted that in this formulation, the pillars of society are strong, inclusive segments, based on divisions of religion, ethnicity or commanding ideologies, and are composed of inclusive social institutions, ranging from schools to sports associations.
Hence, parties cooperate and come together institutionally in the face of divisions that are strong enough to split the system and destroy democracy. Of course, the power-sharing involves information and idea exchange across political parties. This may be exactly what Taiwan needs right now.
My thesis is that the China issue could be the central focus of any consociational democratic experiment in Taiwan. It is not immediately clear how the idea would apply to Taiwan, where religious, linguistic and ethnic differences are not at the heart of major societal divisions, where there is no strong tradition of corporatism and where the most basic political division is defined by only one issue — that of policies toward and relations with China.
Imagine that for years to come there is no way any one party can resolve the China question, a scenario which seems probable. Then the issue would continue to dominate all public discussions and dampen much-needed policy innovation in areas such as health, education, defense, social welfare and the environment.