Modern Taiwan might appear to have the trappings of a democratic system — such as popular elections and political parties — but the sad truth is that the country’s political and judicial systems are being manipulated in such a way that elections in Taiwan are not free and fair. Without free and fair elections, Taiwan is not a fully functioning democracy.
In the past 70 years, Taiwan has transformed dramatically: from part of the Japanese empire, to an authoritarian state governed under martial law, to having a president elected by popular vote for the first time in 1996.
Today, on the surface, Taiwan appears to be a democratic success story. The dream of a flourishing democracy in Taiwan is on the brink of being fully realized.
However, while Taiwan has made tremendous strides, much work remains to be done.
The US has played a critical role in paving Taiwan’s path to democracy so far, and its ongoing support is necessary to ensure Taiwan’s democracy continues to thrive.
Taiwan’s democracy is only 20 years old, born as a last-ditch concession by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as it finally began to buckle under the pressure of relentless protests by the freedom-loving Taiwanese. The KMT also acquiesced to placate the international outcry over its authoritarian rule, especially from the US. Only as the result of these circumstances did the KMT agree to end nearly four decades of dictatorship and allow Taiwanese to vote for their legislators and president.
In fact, it was a mere political ploy. The KMT calculated that it could continue to monopolize the political power while maintaining the veneer of a democratic system.
However, an extraordinary event occurred during the 2000 presidential election, when former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became the first non-KMT president of Taiwan, prevailing over two major contenders who split the pan-blue camp vote.
In 2004, an assassination attempt that injured both Chen and former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) the day before the election galvanized voters to re-elect Chen by a razor-thin margin of 0.228 percent.
During Chen’s two terms, his attempts to enact reform and to bring about true democracy in Taiwan were thwarted by the KMT-controlled legislature.
The KMT regained power in 2008 with the election of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Since that time, the democratic reforms that the Chen administration managed to implement have been reversed.
Even worse, to cover up the deterioration of Taiwan’s democracy, Ma has launched a broad public relations offensive, including through academic and think tank conferences held in the US, to propagate the idea that Taiwan is a functioning and sound democracy ruled by popular will.
The deliberate misrepresentation of the true state of Taiwan’s political system is orchestrated to placate the Taiwanese and mislead our international allies into thinking that Taiwan is not an issue that requires continued attention.
In fact, both internal and external factors are working to strengthen the KMT’s hold on political power and foreclosing opportunities for real democratic progress in Taiwan.
Most critically, the country’s popular elections, the cornerstone of a democratic system, are tilted in favor of the KMT, for the following reasons:
First, the KMT’s wealth allows it to unduly influence elections. The party’s wealth largely results from historical circumstances. Following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II, the KMT took over substantial amounts of property in Taiwan that were previously controlled by the Japanese government. Under the four decades of authoritarian rule, there was no distinction between the party and government in terms of resource appropriations, the KMT profited handsomely from numerous forms of public corruption and graft.
To illustrate the massive extent of the KMT’s accumulated wealth, one study found that in 2010 — during a bear market — it received about US$100 million in dividends from its equity investment in Taiwan’s stock market alone — which translates into a conservative US$3.3 billion portfolio, assuming a 3 percent average yield. This is only a very small portion of its total assets, which include many real-estate holdings and businesses in Taiwan and overseas.
These illicit funds were used to control the media in Taiwan, providing KMT candidates with an enormous advantage in any election at any level of government. These funds were also used for substantial direct funding to its candidates. No wonder there has been widespread vote buying by the KMT candidates.
Ma has repeatedly promised to return the KMT’s ill-gotten assets back to the Taiwanese, but these promises have proven empty.
Second, the KMT controls the judiciary. For decades, the KMT directly controlled the judiciary, which has never functioned as a truly independent branch of the government.
Eighty percent of judges are former KMT members. While Chen ordered them to forgo their formal party affiliation, their loyalty remains unaffected. The judiciary does not treat all citizens alike, but administers selective justice swayed by political considerations, with the goal of protecting the KMT’s grip on power and harming the party’s opponents. The clearest example is the politically motivated prosecution of Chen.
Third is Chinese interference in Taiwan’s elections. Taiwan’s domestic political contests do not take place in a vacuum. The Chinese government, which previously made repeated threats to take over Taiwan by force, has now resorted to more subtle means to advance the goal of making Taiwan part of China. First and foremost, the Chinese government lends its support to the pro-China KMT.
In January’s presidential election, it used a carrot-and-stick approach to interfere in the election in the south, where the DPP enjoys strong support. On the one hand, it strategically deployed procurement missions to curry favor with voters in these areas, a practice that equates to vote buying; on the other, it withheld approving tourist groups visiting these areas before the election.
Tourist related industries, including hotels and restaurants, suffered a tremendous economic loss during this period. This was a warning and a threat to voters that unless they supported the KMT candidates, their economic suffering would continue.
Moreover, China urged Taiwanese business concerns that have large investments in China to compel their employees to vote for the KMT ticket. From Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) on down, the Chinese government openly declared that it would not tolerate any Taiwanese president who did not accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” a none-too-veiled threat against the DPP and its candidate, former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Fourth, international bias favors the KMT. Although Chinese influence was by far the strongest international factor in the election, perhaps more disconcerting was the role played by some leading democracies, especially the US.
Despite official proclamations of neutrality, at least some elements of the US government were perceived by Taiwanese voters to support Ma’s re-election.
There was a sudden flurry of high-level US official visits, coupled with the announcement of Taiwan’s candidacy for visa-free status (which has not yet been confirmed) just before the election.
In addition, an unnamed US official told the Financial Times that Tsai had failed to win US leaders’ confidence on her trip to Washington, and former AIT director Douglas Paal came to Taiwan to openly endorse Ma.
Historically, the US has acted as a counterweight to China’s threats, giving Taiwanese more confidence to pursue democracy. The appearance of US government support for Ma and his policies diminishes hope for real progress in Taiwan.
Ma’s pro-China policies may have some superficial appeal in the form of purported short-term economic benefits.
However, the consequence is the insidious process of integrating Taiwan into China. Opinion polls show that Taiwanese do not want to become part of China. They want to live in a free and democratic country, a goal that aligns with the interests of the US and the rest of the free world.
As the KMT redoubles its efforts to maintain power, working closely in partnership with China, elections in Taiwan will never be free and fair. Democratization in Taiwan is losing ground, and the situation is getting worse. Taiwanese are beginning to feel the forces arrayed against them becoming stronger by the day. If we do not reverse course before it is too late, the end result will be Taiwan becoming a part of Communist China. This is not in the best interests of Taiwan or the US.
Taiwanese are holding on to a dream of democracy, but they need the help of the international community — especially the US — to have a chance in their David versus Goliath fight against the partnership of the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party.
At this time when democracy in Taiwan is under threat, it is in the US government’s own long-term strategic interest to continue providing support and exerting pressure to help bring about the reforms necessary to realize the dream of true democracy in Taiwan.
Wu Li-pei is a former senior presidential adviser