Be careful what you wish for if Chen goes

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德  / 

Sun, Aug 27, 2006 - Page 8

The sit-in organized by former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Shih Ming-teh (施明德) calling on President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to stand down has resulted in another wave of social cleavage and partisan wrestling.

Shih has cast a political shadow over Chen's already-fragile leadership, especially in light of the pan-blue camp's attempt to recall the president.

Chen's failure to uphold higher moral standards and enforce stricter discipline among his family and staff has disappointed a lot of DPP supporters. However, Shih's claim to "seek revolutionary means to oust Chen" is inappropriate in a democratic system.

Taiwan's imperfect democratic institutions provide legitimate channels for the public to recall or impeach a president. But the Constitution also serves as an important safety mechanism for maintaining political stability when movements to oust officials are launched.

The public is smart enough to settle for a president's declining popularity and loss of influence before an election. The public is also confident enough in its country to respect constitutional rules and avoid unconstitutional measures in bringing about a change in government.

In this regard, the public has sent a clear message to political leaders that political stability and economic order are what concern them the most. Conflict between the governing and opposition parties should be brought to an end.

We should take seriously the public's craving for stability and respect judicial procedures in unveiling the truth. If evidence shows that Chen was personally responsible for illegal activity, he should bear the political and moral responsibility and resign.

Yet Chen's resignation would not solve any of the structural problems with government. Indeed, it could trigger an even more severe political crisis. The pan-blue alliance would obstruct Chen's successor and exploit the transfer of power.

Can Taiwan afford a prolonged crisis lasting until 2008? Can Shih guarantee -- as he has claimed -- that the ruling and opposition parties will engage in a rational dialogue if Chen resigns?

As a country struggling to deepen its democracy, Taiwan yearns for more discipline, institutionalization and order in all phases of its national life.

Upset with endless finger-pointing, a sense of political unrest and instability, the manipulation of ethnicity and a the DPP's apparent trend toward political decay and corruption, voters are looking for national reconciliation, a strong leadership that can enhance an institutionalized system of politics, a truly independent judiciary and relatively clean politics.

The experiences of the "third-wave democracies" of Asia, Africa and Latin America illustrate the essential need for political authority in a changing society to develop disciplined and effective institutions that can cope with rapid social change and prevent cronyism. If Taiwanese society suffers a decline in the political order and loses trust in the constitutional system, the result will be an undermining of political leadership and an erosion of government legitimacy.

The nature and structure of political institutions determine whether democratic progress can be made and whether cronyism and corruption can be rooted out.

Taiwan has been fortunate to avoid disorder such as military coups, violent protests and the resurrection of authoritarian regimes. Still, the tendency toward corrupt politics under DPP rule reminds us of the path that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) walked in the past.

The question that we face is whether Taiwan will follow this path to political decay or whether we have the determination to strengthen our institutions.

Liu Kuan-teh is a Taipei-based political commentator.