How Close to Collapse Is Taiwan's Democracy?
By trampling on the legislature and forcibly hindering democratically elected lawmakers from rightly exercising their constitutional authority, a minority of protesting students is doing Taiwanese democracy no favor.
How Close to Collapse Is Taiwan's Democracy?By Chu Yun-han
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 544 )
It takes a prolonged process of learning and repeated practice before a young democracy takes root. But making it collapse is as easy as tearing down a house with an excavator. If the edifice of democracy lacks a sound foundation, it is possible for groups that represent a minority in society but are radical to topple it with a single push, before the public has become aware of it.
The demise of Taiwanese democracy did not start just today. The seizure of the Legislative Yuan and Executive Yuan are merely elevated forms of the practice of occupying the parliamentary speaker's podium that we have seen in the past. They might also be mere warm-up exercises for the occupation of the Presidential Office later on. The deep wounds that our democracy suffers at this moment will be difficult to heal. There is cause for concern that Taiwan is only a few steps away from a Thai-style collapse of democracy.
In any normal democratic country, neither the legal authorities nor mainstream public opinion would accept or permit anyone, in the name of political protest, to unlawfully break into the parliament. But in Taiwan, opposition party lawmakers stand watch for the illegally intruding students late into the night, while some media and professors voice their full-fledged support. Faced with populist pressure, the state does not dare to enforce the law.
Surprisingly, hardly anyone cares that our legislature has been trampled on. And virtually no one questions why a minority of protesting students can forcibly hinder our lawmakers, who have been elected by more than 16 million eligible voters, from rightly exercising their constitutional authority. Those who voice support for the occupation of the Legislative Yuan avoid talking about how the goals and methods of the students' protest severely deviate from the principle of proportionality. These phenomena clearly show that Taiwanese society generally lacks the basic values of a democratic country.
Perhaps representative democracy will prove unable to keep up with the fast pace of internet-age society. Yet so far, not a single Western nation has dared to lightly discard this time-honored, mature form of government.
The current occupation of the Legislative Yuan is an attempt at ending this system and constitutes an infringement on all citizens' rights to political participation. If those who oppose the Cross-strait Agreement on Trade in Services do not care about the dismantling of this system, we can only say that the foundations of the legitimacy of Taiwan's representative democracy have already been shaken, and some other, more explosive political conflict could sweep them away at any time.
Making democratic rules of the game function well in a society with severely divided national or ethnic identities is not an easy task in the first place, because the most acrimonious confrontations pertain to rather irreconcilable issues that grab people on an emotional level.
From a geopolitical and economic perspective, the global realignment and the new political order in East Asia brought on by the rise of China is still in the making. It is inevitable that such rare, once-in-a-century, historical changes make it difficult for many people to adjust emotionally. The greater the gap between objective circumstances and subjective aspirations, the higher collective anxiety and frustration are bound to mount. Therefore, any legislation pertaining to the modification of cross-strait relations is likely to unleash enormous forces of conflict.
Yet without a doubt, the Cross-strait Agreement on Trade in Services is just the tip of the iceberg of what awaits Taiwan. It is hard to be optimistic that Taiwan's democracy will be able to weather future political landslides triggered by even greater policy disputes. Therefore, at this crucial moment, for all those who have been drawn into the student protests, I would like to remind you of one saying:
Nature is cruel: It sacrifices all creatures. "Politicos" are cruel too: They sacrifice the people.
(The author is a distinguished research fellow of the Institute of Political Science at the Academia Sinica.)
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz