The present government’s Third-Term Plan for National Development in the New Century (2009 to next year), referred to in short as the New Third-Term Plan, set itself the major goals of speeding up liberalization in the market system, augmenting the value of social capital and promoting energy savings and carbon reduction, as well as building public infrastructure, creating stronger global linkages and focusing on the growth of clean high-tech industries, such as biotechnology and cultural resources.
How much debate has the presidential campaign focused on such issues in the run-up to the election? How far are the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) now being held to account over such basics? What would their defenses look like? The run-up to the election not centering on such questions might well be taken as a sign of the failure of Taiwan’s earlier democratic impulse.
Yet at the turn of the century, international opinion on Taiwanese politics bandied about such terms as “political miracle,” “the great transition” or “the first Chinese democracy,” and applauded Taiwan’s ability to avoid social conflict in its move toward political liberalism.
US academic Shelley Rigger said that Taiwan “proves that a determined nation can attain democracy, freedom and prosperity peacefully.”
We should remember this now, but we should also keep in mind two other important facts. First, China threatened and bluffed, but could not halt Taiwan’s transition; second, from that point an increasingly KMT-dominated politics has moved away from any forthright statements of independence and, of course, downplayed the earlier democratic urgency.
Taiwanese politicians continued wholesale focus on China into the present pre--election weeks fails democracy in Taiwan, because it repeatedly accomplishes four things that weaken democracy.
First, it distracts the population. The China-Taiwan relationship cannot be dealt with at home, it is a global issue that at best can only be trimmed and “soft-powered” from Taipei. None of the presidential candidates, not Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Ma, People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) nor any of their advisors have enough power to effect cross-strait outcomes, and at the present, no-one has done much to critique the so-called “1992 consensus,” other than to debate how it might be applied.
The rhetoric that presents the parties not supporting unification, Ma, or supporting separatism or independence, Tsai, is entirely misleading — there might well be a compromise position of good sense between these extremes that is not an end-game, but can hold for some time, perhaps for long enough to move to a later resolution when Chinese incomes and social changes have forged internal political changes that will push the relationship in entirely different ways. However, the point is that no resolution can come directly out of this election, whatever its result.
Second, it forces Taiwanese politics into a game of personality played between two or maybe three leaders, and ignores the party policies and ministries that would result from this. The leader is thus likely to be selected for the wrong reasons, and his or her success or failure will be decided for equally wrong reasons.
A Liberty Times editorial (“Taiwan’s eggs are all in one basket,” Sept. 10, page 8) made the sound argument that Ma and the KMT’s policies have -increasingly relied upon closer economic relations with China. This is clearly true and the case was well made. However, this sort of argument should not act simply as a “scare tactic” to build support for Tsai; rather, it should be a prelude to a real, public examination of the “China policies” of both main parties in terms of the social, economic and cultural future of the nation. This should be the focus of democracy during election times in Taiwan.
Third, the focus on China fails to educate the electorate, especially young voters. For example, through the fog of presidential rhetoric, how much do young voters now know about the seven strategies of the “comprehensive stimulus package” and how they as voters could now judge it in terms of its creation of job opportunities for graduates or its role in assisting the growth of those small and medium-sized enterprises at which they might find themselves working for the first time? If their attention was brought to this matter, perhaps youth might then veer away from the KMT.
Fourth, it fails to address important issues that should be the basis of party programs that are subsequently the measure of the success of a party as a whole, while also failing to address a party’s adherence to a coherent political agenda. In fact, it confuses voters — for instance, there seems to be an arguable case for the success of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement on economic or commercial grounds, yet on all sides, it is being judged primarily on the value of its political symbolism.
So it might well be that for many Taiwanese, voting for democracy means voting for the DPP. However, it is time to go further than that. It is the public’s democratic right to demand from the DPP more coherence on social and economic policy, more specific promises relating to those things that they might actually have power over and less attention to the high-flying rhetoric of China and cross-straits issues. It is much more likely that a strong democratic program from the DPP would lead to an era within which Taiwan’s case for independence and sovereignty could be made globally and within East Asia. It is important that Taiwan take this step now. It is also vital to avoid more poor years for democracy from what is presently the best-choice party. Taiwanese should make one small vote for democracy.
The clear-and-present danger is that many voters will choose their future government not on the basis of how well statesmen have fulfilled important promises regarding the economy and society in which they live day by day, but rather on their feelings as to how the Ma and Tsai rhetoric over China and the different aspects of the cross-strait issue agree with their own biases and fears. The KMT might once again be victorious on its vainglorious promises of a final solution to the “China problem,” coupled with a nice argument about the economic benefits to Taiwan of closer ties with China.
However, this raises the question: Is this enough to sustain democracy?
Cross-strait ties must now become only one important issue of electoral politics, not its sole issue. Indeed, the fact that so many millions of Chinese are now tuning in to Taiwan’s presidential debate, supposedly apprehensive of a Tsai victory, is in a sense evidence of just how this issue is occluding or crowding out the application of democracy in Taiwan.
Ian Inkster is professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University and professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College in Greater Kaohsiung.
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