No.051, September - October, 2006
Party Politics in Taiwan: Party change and the democratic evolution in Taiwan, 1991-2004
Taiwan is the only Chinese nation where democracy has flourished. The real test of democracy in the nation of more than 23 million people began in 1991, when multi-party elections were held. They were followed by the consolidation of democratic institutions and the initiation of party politics as they exist today. But Dafydd Fell says that democracy in Taiwan began as far back as the 1930s, when competitive local elections were held.
It was not until 1987, when the KMT-led government in Taiwan lifted the martial law that had been imposed since Nationalist troops arrived on the island in 1949, that the period of a one-party politics began to fade and the doors were opened to multi-party politics. What followed were a series of important government decisions to revise radically and to alter the structure of the government and political system. National Assembly and Legislative Yuan elections were held in 1991 and 1992 respectively, followed by mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung. Former President Lee Tenghui carried the banner of democratic reforms, and while he represented the ruling KMT party, he was not able to prevent the decline of the reign of the Nationalist Party on the island.
Other political parties were born, which led to the defeat of the KMT in the presidential election in 2000. The Democratic Progress Party was victorious in 2000 and also in 2004. This study of party politics in Taiwan has the merit of exposing the reasons that unite or divide political parties. The author says national identity has been the single issue that has divided and continues to divide political parties for the past two decades. Politicians in new democracies have been able to exploit popular sentiments on ethnic nationalism from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In China, the communist party strengthened its legitimacy by repeatedly claiming that it is the only representative of the Chinese nation. Nationalism has been used to legitimize weak regimes. Taiwan has not escaped the trend in nationalism and identity, which has always been present in politics, propaganda and elections. In Taiwan, the division between the two major parties, the KMT and DPP, has been clear in every election since the early 1990s.
"The power of national identity is linked to its central place in the core ideology of all major political parties in Taiwan, and it has become entwined with many other political issues," the author says. The political system in Taiwan is clearly divided by polarized ideologies.
According to the author, the KMT position is that the Taiwanese people are Chinese, that Taiwan in part of China and the Republic of China (ROC) government is the only legitimate representative of all China and finally Taiwan and the mainland should be reunified in the future. By contrast, the DPP position is that the Taiwanese are ethnically Chinese, but have the right to self-determination and that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are two separate sovereign countries. The clash between mainlanders and those born on the island has added to the complexity of party politics. The author also provides the two most contested areas of national identity in Taiwan: the conflict across the strait over whether Taiwan should be reunified with the mainland and the question of Chinese versus Taiwanese self-identification. Those two complex areas are the battleground for political parties in Taiwan.
The left side of the political spectrum in Taiwan is represented by the DPP, which campaigns for a Republic of Taiwan while the right side is the KMT, which calls for reunification. In the center are those calling for maintaining the status quo. While the ideological fight is complex, the political division between left and right appears more simple, according to the author, and is extremely well documented by the multitude of moves by the government, legislative bodies, politicians as well as their parties through various rounds of local, regional and national elections.
The study on party politics also deals with corruption, an inescapable reality in all countries whether they have one-party or multi-party systems. Then there are the external factors impacting on national party politics. The study proves that democracy is working in Taiwan, the author says. The author says national identity may be the issue differentiating the major political parties, but it will not remain so indefinitely. Voters have become more sophisticated and have raised other issues in electoral campaigns as well, including corruption. Political parties may need to reinvent themselves and find new issues that will appeal to voters, the author says.