Editorial: What, not who, comes after Lee?

Wed, Jan 19, 2000 - Page 8

When President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) recently expressed his desire for a "peaceful transfer of power" in Taiwan, he inevitably triggered a round of claims and counterclaims by the presidential candidates, each seeking to prove that he was the one Lee had in mind for the transfer.

It is no mystery that what Lee desires most is to secure his legacy as the "father of democracy" in Taiwan. To do so, that democracy must continue to develop and deepen, and he must be able to establish his credit for such a positive outcome. Undoubtedly, he has in mind the example of the first US president, George Washington, who could easily have been elected for life, but stepped down after two terms, establishing such an indelible precedent that it was not even written into the US Constitution until after World War II.

Ironically, the comparison may be more apt than it first appears. Most scholars of history now acknowledge that Washington's actual policies were lackluster. His achievement lies largely in the act of retirement, and his greatest speech was his Farewell Address. Through these simple steps, he took a major step toward consolidating America's very new democratic system.

The comparison does not stop there. During Washington's presidency, there were no political parties per se; a variety of differing opinions on specific policies, such as how to promote economic development, were contained within a broad ideological "big tent." However, immediately upon his exit from the scene, two parties sprang up, and politics entered a period of polarization. Likewise in Taiwan, although parties have emerged already, it remains true that the era of genuine party competition awaits the post-Lee era. As with the post-Washington US, we should brace ourselves for a fairly tumultuous beginning.

As far as achieving a "peaceful transfer," what Lee has given us so far is the "peaceful" part; indeed, the most significant part of his legacy may well be the successful depoliticization and nationalization of the armed forces. When Lee took office, the military was led by highly politicized mainlanders, who posed at least a potential threat to the development of indigenous democracy. Today, we need not fear the military's interference in the upcoming election, and it is unthinkable that a coup might be launched against the next government. Considering the recent experience of many of our neighbors, this is no mean feat, and Lee deserves due credit.

On the other hand, the act of "transfer" has been left to future governments to address. The hallmark of a mature democracy is not only that the principle of alternation of the party in power has been established, but that it has been put into practice so often that it becomes routine, a fundamental fixture of the political culture. Only in this way can independence and neutrality of the civil service, the judiciary and the military be assured. Changing the single figure in the Presidential Office is insufficient to achieve this goal, as Mexico and others have demonstrated amply.

That Taiwan will have a new, freely elected president this spring is something that the whole country can be proud of. That that man will have an enormous load of work ahead of him to take Taiwan into the "third stage of reform" is something that we must be prepared for. Both facts are legacies of President Lee. The peaceful transfer of power is absolutely critical, but it is nonetheless only one step in an ongoing process of democratic reform.