by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-Wen Facebook
WITH RECENT POLLING by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation indicating that the majority of the Taiwanese public is dissatisfied with the government, this would be a sign of the Tsai administration’s failure to maintain the political momentum it rode into power on. However, although this does not absolve Tsai from blame for her political actions either, perhaps this ultimately is due to the characteristics of Taiwan’s democracy as a result of the process of Taiwanese democratization.
The paradoxes of Taiwanese democratization are many, as a result of which one should be wary of the argument that Taiwan’s democratic transition is complete. For example, following every transition of political power which has happened to date, the possibility of the last president being arrested is always floated, if currently only Chen Shui-Bian faced jail time after his presidential term ended. This occurred after Tsai Ing-Wen’s election with regard to her predecessor Ma Ying-Jeou and may return to questions of the political transition between KMT and DPP during previous successive presidential administrations.
Nevertheless, as another characteristic of Taiwanese democracy, we may also point to the shared fact that all of Taiwan’s democratically elected presidents rose to power on a wave of popular support calling for reform, then lost that popularity after reforms stalled. As KMT political scientist Chen Ling (陳玲) suggests in her book on the Sunflower Movement, Research Into Contemporary Students Movements In Taiwan (當前形勢下的臺灣學運研究), it could be that all of democratically elected presidents in Taiwanese history rode to power on waves of populist political support. When they are unable to accommodate the populist mandate upon which they rode to power, presidents lose popularity.
According to Chen, this began when Lee Teng-Hui embraced populism as a way to retain power late into his presidency, a decision which has come to powerfully define the terms upon which Taiwanese politics were conducted thereafter. While Chen’s critique of pro-Taiwan presidents as Lee, Chen Shui-Bian, and Tsai Ing-Wen may echo quite strongly of the usual dismissive KMT criticism of pro-Taiwan mass movements as populism and KMT distaste of democracy, Chen suggests that this was also true of Ma Ying-Jeou’s rise and fall, and her argumentation has its logical points.
Indeed, Chen Shui-Bian rode to power on a wave of calls for reform as Taiwan’s first democratically elected non-KMT president, and Chen’s election campaigning included the use of large mass mobilizations framed around nativist Taiwanese identity. But after taking power, Chen’s image became tainted over time after numerous scandals which led Chen and the DPP he led to not appear so different from the KMT.
Ma Ying-Jeou then rode to power at the head of a resurgent KMT with a squeaky-clean image from his tenure as Taipei mayor, claiming that he would undo the corruption of the Chen administration. In the lead-up to Ma’s election, the KMT also embraced populist tactics, as seen in its embrace of the “Redshirt” movement against the Chen administration. However, into his second term, Ma’s pro-China policies proved overly provocative of Taiwanese society with the growing perception that Ma was hoping to sell out Taiwan to China for his own benefit.
Enter Tsai Ing-Wen, who rode on the wave of dissatisfaction against the KMT and the wave of youth support after the Sunflower Movement in order to take office. Nonetheless, after failing to communicate policy in a manner persuasive of the public that it was still aiming to enact political reform in Taiwan, the Tsai administration’s popularity seems to be on the decline.
For some, particularly political scientists, this would represent the continued instability of Taiwanese democracy. Namely, the structures of Taiwanese democracy have not yet set root in such a manner as to be systematized and rule-governed, above the passions of a crowd.
But one can also argue that this may be a characteristic of the fact that Taiwan is a post-authoritarian society. That Taiwanese democratization was the product of a mass movement calling for democracy may have enshrined the privileged place of the mass movement in Taiwanese political transitions. With the growing unpopularity of the Tsai administration, or as we can see with the fact that the KMT’s patently ludicrous accusations of the Tsai administration orchestrating a “Green Terror” have some traction in society, this may actually also be a product of general suspicion by the Taiwanese public of government which may also be a legacy of the authoritarian period—in other words, evidencing that the post-authoritarian mass distrust of government persists in Taiwan.
Regardless, it seems like missing the point to see Taiwanese democracy as aberrant because of the fact that it does not conform to those democratic systems deemed to be the correct ones. American political scientists are infamous for their insularity in seeing the American political system as preferable to all others and using the American political system as the standard to which all other political systems must conform. For there is never one system of government which represents an ideal form of democracy and different democratic systems have their advantages and disadvantages and one suspects that criticisms of Taiwanese politics from such observers is sometimes conducted on this basis.
Moreover, when it comes to the standpoint of American political scientists, the election of Donald Trump on a populist mandate illustrates, for example, that American society does not also contain populist tendencies in the same way one observes in Europe and Asia. And the validity of American democracy is to be questioned particularly seeing as Trump did not even win the popular vote, but only the electoral one.
Sometimes the possibility is raised in Taiwanese political discourse that Taiwan should attempt to move towards European-style political system of multiparty democracy rather than something resembling the American two party system. Again, American political scientists are sometimes critical of this notion, continuing to see a two-party system as exists in America as the ideal and most stable form of government. But either way, can Taiwan aspire to democracy on its own terms? One wonders.