Taiwan has to move on toward true democracy

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Wed, Feb 15, 2012 - Page 8

The country held its elections in the middle of last month and Taiwanese must be congratulated for moving forward in an orderly fashion. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) both ran hard campaigns. Ma won with a significant margin and Tsai was gracious in defeat.

Now the questions are what can be accomplished in the next four years and how can Taiwan move forward? Although Ma won, his margin was much smaller than in 2008, signifying that an increasing percentage of the populace feels uneasy about the direction of the country.

A fundamental issue is how to bridge the widening political gap in the country. If Taiwan is to have a future as a vibrant democracy, it needs to find ways for all two sides to come together and define common goals. Ma was dismissive of Tsai’s “Taiwan consensus” idea, but isn’t that what Taiwan needs: a solid basis for a common destiny? Isn’t that what a democracy should be striving for?

Another outcome of the elections was an enhanced balance between the two sides within the Legislative Yuan, providing for better checks and balances. Still, the Legislative Yuan needs to go through significant reforms if it really wants to play a constructive and critical role as a true legislature. Sometimes there is a tendency to fall back into the rubber-stamp role it fulfilled in the bad old days of Martial Law.

Much has already been written about what role China and Chinese interests played in the election. Much of this was behind the scenes, but for Taiwanese voters it was nevertheless a real factor, inhibiting them from making a fully free choice. Whether by urging people to vote for the “right” candidate, through monetary influence or threats of “instability,” it constitutes an infringement of the liberties of Taiwanese. Next time around this “China fear factor” should play less of a role.

And then there was the US: While the administration of US President Barack Obama professed neutrality in the elections, its actions could be interpreted as taking sides. The deplorable statements to the Financial Times in September last year, the sudden spate of high-level visits and the announcement of Taiwan’s eligibility for the visa waiver program all added up to a perception of favoring one side.

To its credit, Washington and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) reacted swiftly and strongly when former AIT director Douglas Paal made his careless and inexcusable remarks just two days before the elections. AIT Director William Stanton canceled his planned meeting with Paal and issued a press guidance distancing the US government from Paal and his statement. Still, from the perspective of Taiwanese voters, the episode left the impression that the US was siding with the incumbent government.

What needs to be done going forward? As said, in Taiwan there is a need for the “blue” and “green” sides to come together and to develop ways to work toward a common future that is in the interest of all Taiwanese.

Taiwan as a country also needs to reach out to its democratic neighbors and strengthen its ties with Japan, South Korea and others who subscribe to the same values of democracy, human rights and free and fair trade. Only if it is part of such an international network can it expand its international space.

The US can help by continuing to provide a security umbrella, so Taiwanese are truly free to choose their own future. It can also help by encouraging Taiwan to undergo legislative and judicial reforms so that there are appropriate checks and balances. That is what real democracy is all about.

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.