The first of the televised debates for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson candidates was held last weekend in Greater Kaohsiung. New ideas are needed in the face of the relative ease of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential victory in January and the resignation of DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). However, the debate instead focused on the same old issues.
There is great danger of the DPP getting stuck in rhetoric and adhering to the pattern of corruption and blinkered focusing on cross-strait issues that plagues Taiwanese politics. Alternatively, it might be that a agenda could be forged within the party by systematically combining Tsai’s original electoral ideas, the China question and party reform. If this is done at all, it should be done now.
One of Tsai’s big ideas — before she was ambushed by the issue of who could best capture the support of the US and China over who should run Taiwan — was that of the awkwardly named “consociational democratic system” (whose meaning is not easily translated into Chinese). The Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart developed the term from European experience in his book The Politics of Accommodation, which was primarily concerned with how segmented societies could manage to sustain democracy through power sharing.
Lijphart differentiated between majority-style, consensual and consociational democratic systems. Of these three polities, the first is familiar as having become common in more established democratic nations, while the second periodically arises as a syndrome or a departure of such democracies and is signified by cross-party cabinet coalitions, powerful interest groups, strong entitlements and easily identified “outsider” minorities whose rights are under threat. They also often have federal structures. Tsai clearly stated that this second option was not what she was advocating for Taiwan.
In what Lijphart labeled the “grand coalition” of consociational democracy, the elites “of each pillar come together to rule in the interest of society because they recognize the dangers of non-cooperation.”
However, it must be noted that in this formulation, the pillars of society are strong, inclusive segments, based on divisions of religion, ethnicity or commanding ideologies, and are composed of inclusive social institutions, ranging from schools to sports associations.
Hence, parties cooperate and come together institutionally in the face of divisions that are strong enough to split the system and destroy democracy. Of course, the power-sharing involves information and idea exchange across political parties. This may be exactly what Taiwan needs right now.
My thesis is that the China issue could be the central focus of any consociational democratic experiment in Taiwan. It is not immediately clear how the idea would apply to Taiwan, where religious, linguistic and ethnic differences are not at the heart of major societal divisions, where there is no strong tradition of corporatism and where the most basic political division is defined by only one issue — that of policies toward and relations with China.
Imagine that for years to come there is no way any one party can resolve the China question, a scenario which seems probable. Then the issue would continue to dominate all public discussions and dampen much-needed policy innovation in areas such as health, education, defense, social welfare and the environment.
It would also make it highly unlikely that the two major parties would come together on any of the really important issues, and that backbiting and corruption accusations would continue as the life-blood of the system. The old political pattern would not change, and Taiwanese democracy would slide into the mire.
Is it possible to alter this DPP approach in a way that might result in a more democratic outcome? A limited practice of consociational discussion and decisionmaking centered on the China issue in the broadest sense, incorporating basic economic, cultural and political considerations, might itself be utilized as a test of the idea and bring party politics in Taiwan into greater repute.
Such a limited project might be given a two or three-year trial. Might extended and publicly informed debates on the very issue that has engendered the idea of consociational democracy for the nation be used to test its validity as a mode of operation?
At the time, Tsai’s formulation was all too easily seen as a call for a grand coalition government. There is no way President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the KMT were going to listen to that. It was never feasible.
However, there is no reason why the idea could not be translated into explicit policies and discussions in ways which do not spell out coalition government.
Consociation might be avoided at the level of parliament, but there might be consociation at the level of expert advisers and in widening participation in decisionmaking, together with consociation at three “levels of dialogue”: administrative to legislative, government to society and party to party. At the very least, this would demand more public platforms for systematic policy formation over the next term of KMT governance.
Why should there be any objection to placing the so-called “1992 consensus” at the center of critical discussion and on all levels of consociation? If an experiment in consociation were indeed mounted upon the China issue, debate would become more inclusive and considered, a variety of opinions could be heard, and Taiwan would preserve its right to be considered an exemplary new East Asian democracy — in itself a soft-power defense against Chinese arrogance.
The danger is that effective objections would arise from the threatened egos of all those who have not thought of this themselves. Coming from Tsai and the DPP, such ideas would be aborted, bludgeoned or blurred by the KMT’s interests before they could be tested on even a modest level.
Perhaps this is the quandary that should be inserted into the present run for chairmanship of the DPP? Is there a candidate who might extract the China issue from the political mire and forge it into the vehicle of more inclusive Taiwanese politics?
Ian Inkster is professor of international history at Nottingham Trent University, professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College in Kaohsiung and has been editor of History of Technology since 2000.
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