When a government uses an election to secure control of both the executive and legislative branches of government and then uses this majority to implement policies that run counter to public opinion, while the system lacks the tools to counterbalance these actions, then there is something wrong with this democracy.
Historically, this is not the first time the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has controlled both the administrative and legislative branches, but rarely has it pushed through policies arbitrarily and displayed an unwillingness to conduct democratic negotiations and social consultations between elections. Be it former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) toward the end of the authoritarian era, or former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) during the nation’s democratic transition, there were frequent public consultations on policy issues even during non-election years. There were also social movements taking place outside the system and various national conferences that included both government and opposition forces. These are all examples of a golden age of deliberative democracy.
After winning the first direct presidential election, Lee was viewed as a champion of democracy rather than a “democratic dictator,” and he enjoyed strong public support and represented unity across the broader society. In those days, public opinion decided who got voted in and it also directed the policy direction.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), on the other hand, has become a “democratic dictator” suffering from low approval ratings and facing strong resistance from a broad spectrum of society. Ma must rely on his party’s legislative majority to force through his policies and this makes one wonder about the shortcomings of Taiwan’s democratic system.
When the presidential and legislative elections were combined, the number of elections decreased and one national election alone decided the allocation of both the executive and legislative powers. While midterm local government elections allow voters to “punish” politicians they are unhappy with, they have nothing to do with the allocation of the central government’s powers and cannot serve as a mechanism that can counterbalance and amend policy implementation. The result is a non-democratic outcome in which public opinion has no influence on government policy whatsoever.
Taiwan is now left with a re-elected president who is intent on pursuing his personal ambitions and interests and who does not have to worry about running for re-election. Public opinion, supposedly part of the democratic system, in effect only counts on election day. The public has been reduced to becoming a reason for justifying the use of resources and a target of media manipulation, instead of a nation reflecting the fundamental values and goals of a democratic system.
This is why we hear the Ma administration refer to pressure from major powers, when trying to justify its policies. For example, the government either talks about how the US would retaliate by decreasing trade with Taiwan if the latter does now allow imports of US beef containing ractopamine residue, or how cross-strait tensions would increase if the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) did not pass. The Ma administration leads by suppressing public opinion by instilling fear of external pressures, rather than listening to public opinion.
This is the source of “democratic dictatorship.” Democracy has degenerated into a means to obtain power and the “dictatorship” is expressed in the rush the government gets from its arbitrary use of power.
This is what has become of Taiwan’s democracy. A lot of work is needed to put things back on track.
Hsu Yung-ming is an associate professor of political science at Soochow University.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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