No matter where you are in the world, it is nearly impossible to avoid the US presidential election campaign. With little love lost, participants in the US’ two major parties — the Republicans and the Democrats — are heatedly vying to be selected as their party’s candidate.
This process is still in the primary stage and there is clearly more to come, but already names such as “lying Ted” are being bandied about; tax records are fair game; past performances are raked over with a fine tooth comb, and even wives and family members are targets.
It might not be pretty, but it is democracy and accountability in action, and it is that democratic process of leadership selection that continually points out a major difference between democratic nations such as the US and Taiwan, and one-party states such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
What is happening now in the US happened in Taiwan before the January presidential elections, albeit in a much less vitriolic manner. In Taiwan, with three parties vying for the presidency, the candidates from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party squared off in debates, answering questions from moderators and challenging each other with questions. Vice presidential candidates also debated.
The role of the debates is to help voters see the nation’s potential leaders in action and to examine policy differences. Voters judge how well the candidates articulate their policies and how well they handle the pressure of questions and challenges. When Taiwanese voters selected the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), they knew the candidate and the policies they were getting and what they were rejecting.
In the US, the process is still ongoing; US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, to the surprise of many, has narrowed the Republican field from 17 to three, but despite his strong lead, he might not get the nomination if he enters a contested convention.
A second important and necessary element in democracies is the role of a free media, which continually comments on and questions candidates’ beliefs, track records, values etc. In addition to newspaper, TV and radio coverage, numerous talk shows discuss the pros and cons of each candidate and their actions. Even political parties can participate through campaign ads that promote their candidate and sometimes paint their candidate’s opponent in a negative light; the only restrictions they face are good taste and libel.
At the end of the day voters in a democracy have many perspectives from which to judge candidates. They basically know for whom and what policies they are voting.
Voters get what they choose and if they misjudged, they have another chance in four years. Elected leaders are held accountable for campaign promises, especially when performance does not live up to hype.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) went through this process. He left the KMT with a poor reputation as he did not keep up with his campaign pledges and with a changing Taiwan. Dissatisfaction with Ma’s performance proved to be as much of a factor in the KMT’s defeat in the January elections, as did uncertainty about the abilities of the KMT candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫).
Taiwan has also experienced life on the other side of the fence.
Like China, Taiwan has been a one-party state and Taiwanese got to know the opaque, closed door, selection process of leadership that Chinese now experience. They have also experienced the blindness engendered by a state-owned media.
In China, leadership succession for many “princelings” seems a matter of bloodline, but can there be “dynasties” in a democracy? If applied loosely perhaps that is true; in the US, the Bush family did elect a father and a son as president. In addition, there is a chance that Democratic US presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton might be elected as the second Clinton president.
However, each time the candidates must run the gauntlet of the primaries, followed by the national election campaign trail. The chance of a third Bush presidency quickly died this year when former Florida governor Jeb Bush did not get a majority of delegate votes even in his home state.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, how one qualifies to be a leader in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) politburo is a murky business that few Chinese are privy to and the state-run media does little to clarify.
Former Chongqing CCP Secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙來) tried to crack Beijing’s inner circle, but his efforts proved to be more disastrous than simply the shame of a lost election.
With this vagueness of leadership succession, Taiwanese can once again see the differences between the way their democratic nation is run and the PRC. Taiwanese are also aware that the promise of democracy for Hong Kong has almost expired in less than 20 years and might prove to be its own “dream deferred.”
A final result of this leadership selection process is that in democratic nations there is little chance of any idolization of leaders. In China, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) is still idolized, but in Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) is not. With a free and observant media constantly dissecting a leader’s life and actions and revisionist historians ever on the prowl, iconic heroes can seldom maintain that status.
For all these reasons, there should certainly be joy in Taiwan as Tsai gets ready to become the first female president and leader of the nation, but with that joy there should also be a watchfulness. Even before she takes the oath of office, the honeymoon is likely to be short; the leadership personnel that she has selected for her Cabinet are already being well scrutinized.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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