13 January 2008

A Maturing Democracy

In 1988, Taiwan was under martial law, one-party rule and a sham of a legislature packed with holdovers from Chiang Kai-shek's regime in mainland China.

Twenty years later, Taiwan has one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. And Saturday's election further advanced that -- Taiwan now has a democracy that's mature enough to rival any in the western world.

The people of Taiwan deserve all the credit for this dizzying progress. In Saturday's watershed legislative election, they sent a resoundingly clear message: They want their democratic, capitalistic system to work for their benefit.

That means not to provoke a fight Taiwan can't possibly win. That means long-term prosperity and peace. And that also means forever repudiating the empty rhetoric of Chen Shui-bian, who has delivered nothing but trouble in his eight years as president.

And that means, ironically, investing almost all the political power back into the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that used to rule Taiwan with an iron fist.

No political party in the history of the world has undergone a metamorphosis quite like the KMT. Founded by Sun Yat-sen and consolidated by Chiang Kai-shek, KMT was a driving force during the birth of the Chinese republic when it overthrew four thousand years of dynastic rule in China.

Yet, overtime, Chiang's party became a neo-fascist dictatorship -- first in war-torn China, and after losing the Civil War to the Chinese communists, in Taiwan for 40 years. During its rule in Taiwan, opposition was suppressed; dissidents were jailed; and only KMT members could occupy high office and key positions that controlled the lever of power.

But it was also the KMT that voluntarily scrapped one-party rule and held free elections, the first of which took place in 1992. In 2000, a party split enabled Chen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to win the presidency, ending the KMT's hold on power in Taiwan after 51 years.

In the intervening eight years, KMT kept reinventing itself, and found in Ma Ying-jeou a charismatic representative. The NYU and Harvard-educated former mayor of Taipei is the prohibitive favorite to win back the presidency in the March election. Currently, he's ahead of DPP candidate Frank Hsieh by over 20 points in survey polls.

Should Ma be elected, he will have a legislature with 81 of its 113 members from his own party. KMT took all but two seats from the entire northern, central and eastern parts of Taiwan. But more astonishingly, KMT made inroads in traditionally DPP strongholds Tainan and Kaohsiung. In Kaohsiung City, KMT took three of five seats. In Kaohsiung County, it reeled in three of four.

Saturday's election left DPP in tatters. With KMT and its allies holding a super majority that exceeds three-fourth of the legislature, DPP is in danger of being cast aside as a fringe party. For that, they have only one person to blame.

In his eight years in office, Chen Shui-bian's only interest -- besides enriching his own inner circle illegally -- has been to fan an anti-China passion to the island's own detriment. He never tired of endless political games aimed at irritating China and the United States (Taiwan's security guarantor) that achieved nothing.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's robust economy slowed to a crawl. While commerce with mainland China continued to flourish, restrictions on trade with China capped economic growth. To this day, Taiwan has no direct air, sea or mail link with mainland China. To go from Taipei to Beijing, you have to detour through Hong Kong or Macau.

Chen's latest political adventure was a referendum on joining the United Nations with the name of "Taiwan," instead of the country's official title, the Republic of China. He also embarked on a series of desinicization activities, stripping the word "China" out of many state-controlled entities at a great expense to taxpayers.

After eight years of putting up with Chen's shenanigans, the voters decided they've had enough. Chen is prohibited by law to run for another term, but the people of Taiwan didn't want to wait until March to get him out of office. Saturday's election was a referendum on Chen, and it was a resounding vote of no confidence.

At the moment, Taiwan is one of the world's leading economies -- a great achievement for an island of 23 million people. Taiwan's GDP exceeds that of Australia. Its per capita income is on par with France and Germany. It has few people living in poverty (less than 1%) and a low unemployment rate (4.2%).

All of that would be gone in a flash if Taiwan and China resume the unfinished Civil War. China, now preoccupied with the 2008 Summer Olympics, will be training its guns on Taiwan if the island continues to drift away under Chen's stewardship. Even a hint of hostility will negatively impact Taiwan's future greatly.

While the people of Taiwan yearn for international recognition and legitimacy, they're pragmatic enough to know that preserving their way of life is more precious above all else. As a people who enjoyed freedom and prosperity for nearly a quarter century, they have gained an understanding and appreciation for their worth.

They made that known at the ballot box.

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