Earlier this week Steve Tsang (曾銳生) argued in this paper that now is the time for Taiwan to forge consensus. Compared to the 1990s, politics in Taiwan has been highly antagonistic and polarized in the post-2000 period. This trend applies both to the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma Ying-jiu (馬英九) eras, as ruling parties have attempted to make policy oblivious of domestic opposition. Ostrich style politics has contributed to a growing sense of political alienation in the camp that is out of office. Taiwan’s democracy is one of its most valuable assets on the world stage, but the last decade has seen a severe erosion in its status as a model democracy.
How can Taiwan actually get out of this vicious cycle of antagonistic style politics? A review of Taiwan’s recent political history shows that there are precedents for a more consensual style of politics. Although we should not view the era of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) through rose tinted spectacles, a remarkable feature was the move from polarized politics to political consensus. In the 1990s, Taiwanese elites were able to reach genuine consensus on constitutional reform, democratization, social policy and even external relations.
This kind of agreement was generated through both electoral debate and consensus seeking cross-party conventions, such as the 1990 National Affairs Conference and the 1996 National Development Conference. This meant that by the end of the decade, although parties disagreed on many topics, they agreed that democracy was the only game in town and had a tacit agreement on handling foreign and cross-strait relations. This kind of consensual politics gave Taiwan’s democracy considerable domestic and international legitimacy.
The ECFA debate between President Ma and Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was a reluctant but positive step toward dialogue with the opposition. However, to achieve the kind of domestic united front I am proposing requires more than tokenism. I would propose a broad national consensus seeking convention to tackle both external relations and domestic issues.
In theory, this is something that should be handled by the Legislative Yuan, but its antagonistic culture seems to make this an impossibility. Such a convention should include not only cross-party representatives but also participants from academia, business and civil society. We should not forget that surveys show most voters do not identify with the major parties.
I would suggest that Taiwan should wait for some kind of consensus before moving ahead with further cross-strait agreements. In the meantime to reassure those that currently feel fear and alienation from the current cross-strait talks I propose including opposition members in the negotiating team, perhaps with some kind of veto power.
A consensus seeking conference should not be limited to external relations. Political analysts agree that Taiwan also requires serious domestic reforms. Depending on your point of view, Ma’s government has been extremely disappointing or highly cautious on domestic policymaking. Thus, some kind of consensus is also required on key topics such as reviving trust in the judiciary, making the electoral system more proportional, keeping Taiwan economically competitive, making Taiwan a genuine multi-cultural society and tackling the growing problem of income inequality. These are all pressing issues facing the country, simply muddling along will not do.
Reaching agreement on such critical areas is probably wishful thinking, particularly as we are approaching election season. Ma has a huge legislative majority which enables him to make policy regardless of opposing voices, but in reality his style of government is quite similar to Chen’s. Both have failed or been unwilling to seek consensus and listen to alternative points of view.
The Lee Teng-hui era shows that a different style of politics is possible. Such a consensual approach can pay dividends in deepening Taiwan’s democracy, and strengthening its domestic and international legitimacy. With a consensus on external relations Taiwan will also be in a much stronger position for cross-strait negotiations and expanding its international space.
Dafydd Fell is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies and deputy director of the the Centre of Taiwan Studies, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.