Wisdom of 69.86% – What happen when opposition wins

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When the opposition finally won the election, opposition politicians, activists, labor union leaders, and journalists rejoiced. Our political system seemed to have morphed into a stable two-party democracy…

The following article is an excerpt from the book Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick.

What happen when opposition wins – A case study of Taiwan

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, made up of many former political prisoners from during the Nationalist dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, had fought for two decades to challenge the power of the ruling Kuomintang. The party also had stood up for Taiwan’s separation from, and even formal independence from, the People’s Republic of China, in part because it believed that only real separation could guarantee Taiwan’s democratic freedoms. Many DPP politicians had deep ties to labor unions, environmental groups, and other progressive causes, and in opposition had suffered badly for their beliefs. DPP leader Chen Shui-bian himself had served time in prison for his beliefs, and in 1985 his wife became paralyzed after being hit by a truck in what Chen and his supporters believed was an attack by pro-government forces.

As Chen rose up the political ladder in an increasingly open and democratic Taiwan, from local councilor to mayor of Taipei to, eventually, president, he brought with him a bright young circle of advisers who had also suffered as opposition activists. These DPP politicians, many educated in America’s Ivy League schools, promised, if they were elected, to usher in Taiwan’s most open era. They vowed to work for equal rights in a country with a highly patriarchal traditional culture, to reduce Inequality after Taiwan’s long economic boom, and to guarantee women a certain number of cabinet seats, putting them at the policy-making table in Taiwan for the first time. “The DPP is for progress-on women’s Issues, on labor rights-it can be slow, but it’s far better than it was a decade ago, ” said Hsiao Bi-khim, one of the DPP’s leading minds and, in the early 2000s, one of the youngest members of Taiwan’s legislature.

When the DPP finally won the 2000 election, opposition politicians, activists, labor union leaders, and journalists rejoiced. Taiwan’s political system seemed to have morphed into a stable two-party democracy, contested between the Kuomintang, no longer a dictatorial regime but a normal political party, and the DPP, which now held the presidency for the first time. Many also believed that having come from political exile, and suffering themselves at the hands of an oppressive government, the DPP would strengthen Taiwan’s young  democracy. Thousands gathered after the election results were in to hear Chen speak. In the country’s first legislative elections after Chen was elected president, a record number of women won seats. The party quickly passed a series of progressive environmental and labor laws.

Several weeks after Chen’s victory he was sworn in as president on May 20,2000. During his inaugural speech he shouted “Long live freedom and democracy! ” as if he were still leading a street rally rather than giving a formal address. During the inauguration, DPP activists danced at parties in strongholds in Taipei and the south, its base in the country, while foreign observers, from the New York Times’ editorial board to American diplomats stationed in the country, praised Taiwan’s transition as a model of democracy. When Chen traveled to America in spring 2001, he was greeted in New York City and Houston by an outpouring of support from Bush administration officials, and he held meetings with senior American congressmen-even though nearly every previous Taiwanese leader since the U. S. had cut diplomatic ties with the island in 1979 had been treated like pariahs even if they stopped in the United States only to refuel their plane.

In some cases-though not, unfortunately, in Taiwan-longtime Opposition leaders who finally gained the presidency or the prime ministership did remember past struggles and made real attempts to foster compromise and tolerance, even toward their old enemies. Nelson Mandela famously reached out to South Africa’s white minority as president, not only publicly supporting their beloved rugby team but also retaining senior officials who could reassure white businesspeople and investors. More often, however, the first generation of elected leaders only fueled middle class rage. From Venezuela to Bolivia to Kenya to Thailand to Taiwan, these leaders too often have turned into elected autocrats, dominating young democracies whose institutions are not strong enough to restrain a powerful leader uninterested in compromise, negotiation, and tolerance of opposition. To this first generation, many of whom came of age politically under authoritarian regimes, votes are referendums on their rule; having triumphed, they can then use all the powers of the state to crush opposition and favor their personal, political, and ethnic allies.

In other words, these elected autocrats, though fulfilling one function of democracy-winning the most votes-do not uphold constitutional liberalism, or ensure that the rule of law is maintained and that individual liberties and minority rights are protected. They follow the form of democracy but are weakening Its practice.

It is not hard to see why this first generation of elected leaders so often regressed in this way. Holding an opposition movement together in the face of a repressive regime requires a high degree of cohesion, even autocracy, within that movement; serving in opposition for so long also can make a leader intensely fearful. In South Africa during apartheid rule, the African National Congress viciously attacked, and sometimes even killed, members of its own movement whom it perceived as too conciliatory toward the government, or as simply working against the ANC’s aims. (Nelson Mandela was in jail on Robben Island during much of this internal bloodletting,but his wife, Winnie, was accused of promoting the beating and murder of ANC members accused of being government informers. )” Chen Shui-bian, the Taiwanese DPP leader, exhibited many of the same traits while the DPP was in opposition-tight control of his party and paranoia regarding outsiders. These were survival skills in opposition during the Kuomintang dictatorship, when Chen could never trust whether anyone beyond his intimate circle had been coopted by government agents, but later this course would doom his administration once he gained the presidency and the country had transitioned to democracy.

Like Chen, many former opposition leaders can find it especially difficult to jettison these survival traits when the transition to democracy is extremely rapid, as happened in many African nations in the 1990s. These circumstances leave little opportunity for former opponents to forgive the crimes and mistakes of the past. Instead, having finally attained power, leaders who’d seen authoritarian rulers enrich their own tribes, ethnic groups, families, and supporters would then often use their new power simply to reward their own-who can justly claim that they were shortchanged under the previous regime. By comparison, in a more gradual transition, such as in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, conservative and liberal political opponents had more time to build trust and jointly agree on the norms and rules that would govern Spanish democracy.

Taking office in 2000, Taiwan’s DPP movement soon dashed hopes that it would usher in an era of greater democracy and freedom on the island. True to its election promises, the DPP did take a harder line against China, defending Taiwan’s right to govern itself; and to protect its freedoms. (China initially responded harshly but eventually came to a kind of frosty detente with the DPP leaders. ) But on the island itself, Chen Shuibian, and a circle of party leaders around him who had developed a siege mentality in exile, brought their almost authoritarian style to governing in Taipei. Two years Into Chen’s term as president, party activists who opposed anything Chen did soon found themselves Ostracized, cut off from circles of power. Some DPP insiders began to murmur that Chen and his wife were Increasingly using the power of his office, which is one of the strongest presidencies in the world, to direct favors, jobs, and cash to family members and friends.

Later, Chen’s wife would admit to laundering over $2 million from a government contractor. Chen himself would go to jail on corruption charges, after allegations that he had personally stolen millions in campaign money and other government funds. And as we will see later on, Chen and his wife’s corruption were hardly unusual-in Taiwan and in new democracies, graft seems actually to worsen as the political system opens up, at least at first, further alienating average men and women, and besmirching the concept of democratic reform.

In the early 2000s, stories of Chen’s corruption were only whispers; DPP supporters were far more shocked to witness his insular, domineering style. Many believed that, once in office, Chen would naturally give up some of the secrecy and paranoia that had served him during his time in opposition, but they were wrong. Chen angrily fired aides who refused to carry out his wishes, and he brought family members into his inner political circle – at least eleven family members would face corruption charges similar to those made against the president, and his son would face charges of insider trading. Several senior ministers, including the foreign minister, would resign after charging that Chen’s high-handed, self-dealing style had seriously impaired Taiwan’s ability to hold on to its few remaining formal allies, and had allowed Taiwan’s government to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous middlemen with ties to Chen. “People feel humiliated by the government’s incompetence, ” George Tsai, a political analyst at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, told the New York Times, referring to a scandal in which one of the middlemen apparently had taken $30 million in government money. “It’s a joke to the outside world-how could the government be cheated like this?” By the  mid-2000s, the once-supportive Bush administration, furious with Chen’s incompetence and arrogance, simply refused to let him stay overnight in the United States.

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