Taiwan’s Imperfect Democracy
Image Credit: Gerrit van der Wees

Taiwan’s Imperfect Democracy


Taiwan last month concluded its fifth presidential election in a confirmation of the momentous transition to democracy that began in the 1990s under former President Lee Teng-hui. Since then, the island republic has been a beacon of democratic practices in Asia, and passed through two changes of power between political parties. Observers in the United States and other Western countries routinely and justifiably praise the island and its people for their democratic achievements.

Taiwan’s democracy is indeed vibrant and often colorful and rambunctious. Yet a closer look reveals built-in hurdles and impediments that tilt the playing field heavily in favor of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). These obstacles strongly work against a healthy public discourse and fair competition, and especially against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and other smaller parties that would like to have their voices heard.

A significant reason for this imbalance is the island’s lingering authoritarian past and stalled agenda for political reform. The KMT ruled Taiwan as a one-party state under martial law from the late 1940s until 1987. Many vested interests in the administrative system, military, educational institutions and the press still favor the KMT. Despite reforms during the 1990s, the KMT retains political influence over key institutions, including the police, military and judiciary.

In addition, the KMT’s large holdings of financial assets, corporations, and media outlets give it an abundance of resources, allowing it unrivaled capacity to spread its message and influence voters with advantages not tolerated by more mature democracies. In the election campaign just passed, for instance, the KMT out-spent the DPP by more than 10:1. Drained of support from Taiwan’s business community by pressures from the KMT and especially from China, the DPP had to rely on numerous small donations from the grassroots. 

This asymmetry in resources is troubling since electoral campaigns are now waged heavily through TV advertising, and to a lesser extent in buying votes for cash, especially in the 73 district legislative races. While vote-buying is a criminal offense, often prosecuted, there were numerous reports in this election that the practice continues.

As Finnish political scientist Mikael Mattlin argues in his recent book, Politicized Society: The Long Shadow of Taiwan's One-Party Legacy,many aspects of Taiwan’s democratic consolidation remain incomplete. The book describes how Taiwan possesses the veneer of democracy, but shows that many formal and informal political structures are essentially unchanged since the martial law era. These include popular values and attitudes toward power that social scientists say make up a society’s political culture.

In a new twist, this year’s presidential and legislative elections saw a myriad of ways in which China is learning to influence voters on the island. These include overt statements by Chinese officials that Taiwanese needed to vote for the “right” candidate, to corporate business leaders influencing their workers and urging the public to support the government’s policies. One of those businessmen also happens to own an influential publishing conglomerate.

The basic scare tactic used by China and its allies was that a vote for the DPP and its candidate would be a vote for “instability.” That would of course be bad for business, and scare voters away from Tsai. During the campaign, Tsai emphasized that she would work for stable relations with China, but in ways that would not discount Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy. Her message was undercut by a news media generally attuned to flogging the doubts and uncertainties about her candidacy coming from KMT and Chinese sources.

Yu-Hsing Chen
April 28, 2012 at 16:02

Except the problem that the pan blue coalition and even the KMT itself rarely agree on everything, their only usual unifying policy agenda is cross-strait relationship, but it’s hard to say that they ran away with that in the DPP era. meanwhile, the DPP DID win a majority in the Consitutionalal Congress which resulted in the most recent constitution amendments, and they did the swell job of changing electoral laws that ended up favoring the KMT even more. (by virtually killing all the small parties )

It should also be pointed out that you can say the KMT influence the media (which is more true in terms of TV, though how much so remains debatable.), but the fact is that the #1 newspaper in terms of viewership in Taiwan is the Liberty Times, and it is pro KMT in the same way that Fox News if pro Democrats (and amazingly, might be even worse, if that is even possible). while the SECOND most viewed paper, Apple Daily, despite being a Hong Kong paper, is also decisvely anti China (though it is relatively objective on other issues)

meanwhile, neither of the two more widely considered “blue” papers gets that much viewership, and both have had past of fighting hard against the KMT authorities in it’s martial law era, while most ironically the Liberty Times owner was a martial law era big shot who was once the vice Premier of the Control Yuan and possibly the largest single land owner (read, vested interst) in Taiwan, go figure.

If we want to talk about media and state influence and democracy, it should also be noted that the DPP administration threatened to shut down TVBS (one of the more clearly blue / China leaning channals ) back when they were in power, while the Ma administration while having complained about bias of media, have hardly made any moves to doing anything close to that.

Rebecah Chung
February 12, 2012 at 04:58

John Chan wrote: “The KMT won the election with hard work in campaigning and good results in governing…” Wow! What planet do you live on, John? The KMT’s “hard work” is like….smearing Dr. Tsai with false accusations and phony documents showing something she didn’t do? Indicting former president Lee in a case more than 10 years old on “evidence” already thrown out of court? The ridiculous indictments of DPP officials alleging missing documents after 3 years? Tracking DPP campaign workers and eavesdropping on their phone calls? Yeah, if that’s ‘hard work’ then gangsters work hard too. As for ‘good results in governing,’ do you mean rushing 16 agreements with China with NO legislative oversight and NO debate. Yeah, that’s just great governing. Chiang Kai-shek would be proud. Where’s the beef, John. ECFA has produced nothing or almost nothing. It’s been an empty agreement that has failed to live up to the hype from the Ma administration, even as it downgrades Taiwan’s status to a satellite economy of the PRC. Many more “successes” like this and we’ll all need to apply to Beijing for a passport.

February 10, 2012 at 07:52

Since when does pointing out the shortcomings of a governing system undermine a democracy? Quite to the contrary.
There is nothing frail about the KMT’s hold on power. But its commitment to democratic practices is weak and needs constant vigilance and pressure to reform. Actually, this article is a very restrained and carefully measured summary of where’s Taiwan’s political system stands today. A much more radical and conspiratorial view is out there, too.
Maybe you don’t know Taiwan that well, but the KMT’s lingering authoritarian practices are NOT in the imagination of the opposition or foreign observers. They are very real.
It was a KMT Minister of the Interior who said in the 1990s, well after the democratic era began, that “the courts belong to the KMT.” What has changed since then for the judiciary? Very little. The over-reach by state prosecutors of the past few years indicting all those DPP officials and even Lee Teng-hui are obvious cases of political persecution. THIS is the sort of thing that is subverting our democracy, NOT those people who point them out. As for why the DPP lost, that remains to be discovered. Who knows? I’d like to know more about that. Maybe we have been victimized, but I didn’t feel that was the DPP’s message this year. It was social justice. But it was not so convincing as it needed to be.

February 9, 2012 at 04:56

It does not make a difference.

Ed H. Chi
February 9, 2012 at 01:07

Taiwan doesn’t have a bicameral legislature. It has only one legislative body.

Jenson Hsieh
February 9, 2012 at 01:04

DPP didn’t make any mistake in the election. KMT’s statements about DPP’s victory which would bring down Taiwan’s economy were completely a false, whereas KMT didn’t earn any applaud during its four-year presidency. DPP had a great chance to beat out KMT in light of the uprising despair about KMT’s ruling. But the despair wasn’t powerful enough to defeat the influences of the Taiwanese, Chinese, and American corporations. Though KMT has won this round, more doubts about its authority are coming to ground in the seeing future.

Ted Siverns
February 8, 2012 at 13:21

The fear of the growing spread between the rich and the poor in Taiwan appears to have been overcome by several other fears. In the immediate days before the election there appeared a line-up of industry leaders (with plants in China) supporting President Ma and promising better times ahead. When you add the economic promises -or threats- to the batteries of rockets across the strait and the not subtle support of Ma by both China and the U.S.it is perhaps surprising that the DDP did as well as it did in both the Presidential and legislative elections. The next couple of years should be interesting as China continues to lay claim to its ‘errant province’. The Taiwanese claim independence but may continue a slide from which they cannot stop.

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