Young democracies can be cruel: their voters are often as unforgiving as political opponents. The weeks since the disputed presidential election have tested this truth almost to the breaking point. Taiwan's young democracy must now cope with the balancing act that President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) re-election has thrust upon it.
While canvassing for votes in Tainan City on the eve of the election, Chen and Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) were wounded by a would-be assassin's bullets. The sympathy this secured gave the president his razor-thin margin of victory -- with 50.1 percent of the vote -- over Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰), the candidate for the KMT-People First Party (PFP) coalition. Opposition street protests and claims that the assassination was staged followed. A recount was demanded.
None of this is surprising, because Taiwanese society is evenly and deeply polarized. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) called for "one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait" and for "preventing the return of an alien regime" -- meaning the KMT, which ruled Taiwan from 1945. But while Chen's campaign to safeguard Taiwan against threats from China clearly galvanized the party's supporters, it made the uncommitted nervous and the rival KMT angry.
For the KMT-PFP coalition, the campaign was a virtual holy war, conducted not only to revive an ailing economy, but also to keep the country's official name: the Republic of China. With so much at stake, both camps mobilized millions of people.
Chen upped the stakes even more by holding the nation's first-ever referendum. It called for beefing up defenses in the face of China's missile threats and for building a peaceful framework of relations across the strait that separates Taiwan from the mainland. Not only did China denounce the referendum as provocative, so did US President George W. Bush.
In the weeks since the vote, Taiwan has staggered forward. Chen agreed to a recount. But the questions on everyone's lips are whether the loser of the recount will accept the result and whether this young democracy can survive this tumult.
The most important issue facing Taiwan today is not reunification with China, but consolidating and deepening democratic institutions. Traditions of tolerance must replace the turbulence that has so far dominated the building of democracy.
The one benefit to be gained from the referendum is that, for the first time, the people were asked to debate issues relating to national defense and cross-strait relations. Any citizen could take part in one of 10 nationally televised debates and argue with government officials.
Moreover, the presidential candidates themselves engaged in two rounds of televised debates and gave another two televised speeches -- a political openness new to Taiwan and unique in the Chinese political world. Although China's rulers dismissed the election, Taiwan's open democratic exercises will have vast repercussions for other Chinese political communities in their pursuit of greater political pluralism.
From this perspective, Taiwan's democratic traditions can only grow stronger. The DPP is a relatively young party, formed only in 1986. For a long time, indeed, Taiwan was overshadowed by the KMT. That dominance is now definitely a thing of the past. The uneven distribution of power between the two parties had many predicting a victory for the KMT-PFP coalition. Indeed, the DPP had never been able to win more than 40 percent of the vote previously. Its victory has now entrenched it as a fixture on the political landscape.
Having ruled for four years, the DPP has already redrawn Taiwan's political map. Its calls for more reforms, its belief in Taiwan and the urgency of its appeal to defend the nation against improper Chinese influence have now captured the allegiance of a small majority of the population. Yet this should not be considered an outright victory for Taiwanese nationalism.
Were it not for the shooting on election eve, the opposition might have eked out a victory, with the soft economy the deciding factor. The slim majority, and the clear differences between the two political camps, will assure a robust two-party system in the future.
But more than two strong parties have emerged from the campaign. The law, too, is giving democracy a boost.
For example, the two parties are now engaged in tense negotiations to amend the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Election and Recall Law (總統副總統選舉罷免法) to avert any repeat of the confusion surrounding the current recount. In the future a compulsory recount will be held should the winning margin be less than 1 percent.
A "sunshine law" regulating political donations was enacted before the ballots were cast. The finances of the president and his or her family will henceforth be more strictly monitored.
Taiwan's democratic experience has been messy, but no messier than the vote that brought Bush to power four years ago. Yes, Taiwan's recent vote will leave a divided country behind, but those divisions are democratic divisions, and people are now organizing for the next elections. Instead of writing off Taiwan's democratic experiment as doomed to instability or worse, the disputed vote will help consolidate and invigorate our democratic order.
Chao Chien-min is professor of politics at the Sun Yat-sen Graduate Institute for Social Science and Humanities at the National Chengchi University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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