Taiwan’s Imperfect Democracy

Recent Features


Taiwan’s Imperfect Democracy

Taiwan’s recent elections were mostly free, but not completely fair. There were built-in advantages for the KMT.

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.

A delegation from the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan has also concluded that this year’s elections were mostly free, but only partly fair. The group of 24 election observers from Europe, Canada, the United States and Japan was led by former Alaska governor and U.S. Senator, Frank Murkowski.

The challenges for democracy everywhere are enormous. The Taiwanese know this better than anyone. They know, too, that their own experiment with democratic governance is only the beginning of a long and rewarding journey. That journey can only be successful, however, if the hurdles and impediments are cleared away.

For the United States and other Western democracies it’s important to ensure that Taiwan’s democracy retains a level playing field. Only in this way can the Taiwanese people make a fully free choice on their future and become a true beacon for democracy in East Asia, including China.

Julian Baum is a former Taiwan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat who presently serves as editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs in Washington. D.C.