Sun, Dec 15, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan’s cold storage democracy

By Ian Inkster 音雅恩

In the weeks preceding the vacation atmosphere of the Spring Festival it might be salient to reflect on serious matters.

Taiwanese politics seem to rest on basic assumptions that together make up a political perspective that is in the main shared by all major figures in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Under some circumstances, this could be a joyful political regime. However. in Taiwan, the limits to democracy entailed in this shared perspective stand as an insult to the great democracy movement that took on the burdens and dangers of martial law and converted a newly industrializing tiger economy into a free state that could now act as a model of socio-political evolution for emerging systems and as the major source of Taiwan’s global soft power.

The assumptions are often rehearsed. The China-Taiwan Strait question is the dominant and imminent issue at the national level, and this needs to be somehow “settled” — despite a gross absence of clear terms and meanings — before any really detailed effort, time and money can be afforded to broader political issues — cities, the environment, social justice, education, aging and so on.

Second, that really no solution is possible given the global and local situation, and at this point most politicians admit failure even to use key terms with any consistency.

Third, the best pseudo-solution is to defend and extend the “status quo,” although how precisely this might be done is argued over. Generally, many in the DPP would admit that in reality the KMT continues to set and manipulate this agenda.

My point? Does this combination of assumptions not condemn Taiwan to a dismal “cold storage democracy” based on a two-party, one-issue system that is fundamentally indefinite because the pressure of maintaining an unwritten “status quo” means constant rehearsal and repetition, meaning in turn that it remains the dominant issue and indeed practically the only issue once presidential elections come round? Let us extend this thinking.

As the KMT does not appear to lose by this in any way, seeming to have an infinite capacity to maintain basic contradictions, then my proposition would be as follows — unless the DPP acts in the mid-term as an opposition on all major fronts, putting out funded and systematic agendas on basic issues from the environment to social inequalities over the next two years, then the Taiwanese political system will be maintained in aspic, as if the electorate were simply not grown up enough to be trusted with a proper vote on a myriad of basic issues.

The notion of an underdeveloped electorate, seemingly fostered in this argument, was one maintained by the great economist and constitutionalist Walter Bagehot in the England of the 1860s, but even he could hardly have expected it to be maintained in strength across the world in Taiwan in the 21st century.

However, this ancient Victorian vision seems to underlay much of what we now have — a cold storage democracy in which an original one-party system of several issues, clouded, controlled and minimized by martial law, has, through all the earnest and brave efforts of the Taiwanese democracy movement, evolved into a two-party, one-issue system, wherein political debate is held in aspic, like a vegetable in jelly.

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