by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Reuters

IS TAIWAN A “democracy”? Certainly, few would deny that Taiwan is more democratic than it was in the past, as compared to the era of authoritarian rule by the KMT. Nevertheless, much has passed by western commentators in regards to the democratization of Taiwan. It is quite often assumed that post-democratization, the KMT has become a “normal” political party, analogous to any other party functioning in a two-party political system.

And much international reporting about 2016 elections has, unsurprisingly, failed to point to where the KMT’s behavior in the election to date is quite indicative of how how it is not a normal political party. The KMT remains different from past parties on the basis of its history. We might divide this into three aspects, from most visible to least visible.

First and most visible is the question of party assets. The KMT, one of the richest political parties in the world, has a number of financial assets dating from the authoritarian period. It is notoriously claimed that the KMT is the most financially wealthy party in the world. Much of its assets are in real estate as a result of land seizures, some reportedly dating back to land seized from Japanese owners after the KMT came to Taiwan from China. The KMT’s party assets also includes investment in manufacturing and industry. But as the KMT’s party assets has been a hotly discussed issue in 2016 elections, under scrutiny, the KMT has now begun liquidating assets and donating the proceeds to the Taiwanese government. This is in hopes that liquidating its assets will mask the fact that these assets ever existed.

PhotoCreditUDNPhoto credit: UDN

Second and less visible, the KMT has a network of interpersonal connections to draw on throughout all of Taiwan, which also dates from the authoritarian period. The KMT then composed the party-state of Taiwan and KMT membership was a way for individuals to enter the party-state, allowing for better employment opportunities through access to the interpersonal network of the KMT, much like membership of the CCP today in China is.

This provided a way for the KMT to establish local ties spanning across all regions of Taiwan, as a method of governance. Actually, the local networks of the KMT extends into organized crime, local mobs, and gangsters, which is because during the authoritarian period, gangsters were allocated authority as local enforcers. This local network still exists in some form in the present, because the local ties of the KMT from that period still exist and can be mobilized to provide a support network for KMT politicians, particularly when current KMT politicians sometimes were also members of the KMT during the authoritarian period and retain their interpersonal networks dating from that period–even where organized crime is concerned.

The DPP has never had a local network spanning all of Taiwan in the manner of the KMT. Obviously, the DPP was never the ruling party of a party-state in the past, and its origins lie in the disparate social forces that united in opposition against the KMT during the dangwai movement. Though it is more often discussed how the DPP never had financial resources in any way comparable to the KMT’s party assets, this is also an important factor as to the disparity of the DPP and KMT. Still, with the growth in power of the DPP, there are DPP politicians have also followed in the footsteps of the KMT in accumulating capital by way of crony capitalism, just at a smaller scale than the KMT.

KMT party assets only became a hotbed issue in the last year because civil society has been pressing on the point. Though the issue was well-known, in the past it was not politically imperative as an issue to be addressed.

Third, rarely discussed if at all in English language writing on Taiwan, is the internal ideology of the KMT. In two-party democracies, usually one party swings to the center-left and another party swings to the center-right. Thus, there are political slants to each party, but it is usually parties of the extreme left or extreme right which are founded upon a guiding ideology for the party.

The KMT, however, was founded upon Sun Yat-Sen’s Three Principles of the People, as comprising the ideology of “Tridemism” (三民主義). During the era of the KMT’s authoritarian rule, Tridemism was a central aspect of the political education all Taiwanese received. In the years since the end of authoritarianism, belief in Tridemism has declined, not only among the Taiwanese public, but within the KMT itself.

But despite that the existence of Tridemism an ideology is almost totally unknown in the western world, it remains that there are elements of the KMT committed to the ideological precepts of Tridemism. Tridemism is an ideology with quasi-mystical and vaguely religious elements drawn from traditional Chinese thought. This is in the way that nationalist ideologies often have quasi-mystical elements. The KMT is, after all, the Chinese Nationalist Party.

PhotoCreditReutersEric Chu being sworn in as presidential candidate of the KMT. Photo credit: Reuters

If western commentators had difficulty understanding why Hung Hsiu-chu, during her period as presidential candidate of the KMT, continually made public statements with references to ancient Chinese sages or to the need for self-cultivation for the sake of Buddhist enlightenment, it is because they are unaware of these dimensions of Tridemism. We can see further evidence of the religious and quasi-mystical elements of Tridemism in how chairman of the MKT, Hsu Hsin-ying, current running mate of James Soong, has close ties to far right-wing Buddhist groups that largely back the KMT. Like Soong’s People First Party, the MKT is a party founded by the extremist elements who felt that the KMT had given up too much of its traditional values. Hence the need to found to form a new party to preserve the essential values of the KMT. Indeed, James Soong himself during the second presidential debate accused the KMT of having discarded the traditional values of Tridemism.

Hung was a throwback to this older, more overtly ideological KMT which openly adhered to Tridemism, bringing her closer in line to Soong and Hsu. As in the present, in the post-authoritarian period, there are fewer and fewer adherents to Tridemism, which is why some individuals would leave the KMT to try and preserve what they saw as its traditional values. As we see with Hung’s meteoric rise and then the die-hard Hung supporters who refused to accept her removal as presidential candidate of the KMT, there is a faction within the KMT still committed to the ideological tenets of Tridemism, which threatens to seize control of the party—or a least accentuate its burgeoning internal crisis.

In light of how these factors on the part of the KMT, it would be a mistake to assume that Taiwan has fully democratized. As long as the KMT exists, Taiwan will not be a democracy, seeing as the KMT has proven that internal reform aimed at localizing the KMT has proven impossible.

But somehow, the narrative of “democratization” has led to the conclusion that Taiwan is democratic and in this respect, the KMT is a seen as being political party like any other. But the lingering traces of authoritarianism in a political party are not so easy to erase.