Tue, Jan 15, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Democratizing Taiwan

Bruce Jacobs’s new book is an important and accessible addition to a relatively small body of literature that looks specifically at the unique experiment that is Taiwan’s emergence as a democracy

By J. Michael Cole  /  Staff Reporter

While allowances should be made for other factors that have historically given the KMT an advantage over the opposition, such as money, Jacobs makes a strong case for issues-based electoral outcomes, and has plenty of numbers to support his argument.

Jacobs’ account of the splits and alliances that formed ahead of important elections is unlikely to have much appeal outside academic circles that look specifically at Taiwan. But for those of us who do, it serves as a useful reminder that despite the seemingly insurmountable blue-green divide that characterizes Taiwanese politics today, cooperation between parties on specific issues did occur and could occur again, which serves as another lesson for those who argue that cooperation with the KMT is impossible.

Democratizing Taiwan also succeeds in describing the process of change that occurred under Lee and Chen, especially in the reorganization of the legislature, voting systems, constitutional amendments, and the restructuring of government agencies.

While it is often convenient to accuse Chen of all kinds of ills, there nevertheless is little doubt that his administration played no small role, especially after 2004, in transforming the civil service into one that serves whoever is in power rather than a specific political party, something that can also be said of the armed forces, despite Chen’s difficulty in winning their trust. This aspect of Chen’s presidency, though often overlooked, was one of the milestones of Taiwan’s democratic consolidation.

Of the three latter sections, those on Lee and Chen are the strongest and that on Ma the weakest, probably because the Ma presidency is still a work in progress, and we don’t have the benefit of time and hindsight to make a full account of his failures and successes.

Still, the author makes his view clear that the rapid reform seen under Lee and Chen has lost momentum under Ma. Conversely, Jacobs’ admiration for Lee’s ability to work within the KMT and to launch Taiwan on the road to democracy is evident, though he nevertheless manages to make it clear that Lee’s efforts alone were insufficient to create a democracy in the true sense of the word, if only because he ran out of time and had to step down in 2000.

His section on Chen, above-mentioned accomplishments aside, is especially relevant in what it tells about the DPP’s inability to appeal to the majority of Taiwanese, both during the Chen presidency and since 2008, when the KMT regained power in the country’s second peaceful change of the guard. Resisting the temptation to dictate how the DPP or other parties should approach future elections, Jacobs nevertheless provides ample evidence to discredit the view that a DPP win is by now mathematically impossible because of gerrymandering, a “free but not fair” system, or growing Chinese influence. Against all odds, Chen won in 2000 and again in 2004, and there is no reason why the DPP could not do so again — provided the party shows a willingness to honestly revisit the recent past and to recognize what went wrong. More of the same, Jacobs tells us between the lines, is a sure recipe for failure.

While we still have to wait for the definitive work on Taiwan’s democracy, Democratizing Taiwan is an important, and eminently accessible, addition to a relatively small body of literature that looks specifically at the unique experiment that is Taiwan’s emergence as a democracy.

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