Written by Ming-Yeh Rawnsley and Gary Rawnsley.
The meeting between Presidents Ma of Taiwan and Xi of China, held on 7 November 2015 in Singapore, shone a spotlight on some of the fundamental weaknesses in Taiwan’s still consolidating democratic political system. One uneasy lesson is that, without a satisfactory process of institutional checks-and-balances, the system may reveal its more autocratic tendencies. Let’s be clear: Democracy has not failed in Taiwan, and there is no indication that the political culture is backsliding towards the authoritarian style of government that ended in 1987. However, there are clearly problems when a democratically elected President is allowed to exercise his personal will in secret, and when there is no single institution or legal procedure that can hold the leader accountable for his actions after the event.
In a previous blog post the first author of this piece concluded that ‘democratisation is an endless process. The unresolved questions of the island’s “first wave” of democratisation have left many thorny issues yet to be dealt with. For instance, where are the checks and balances to presidential power in Taiwan’s current political system? How can the capacity and quality of the legislature be strengthened? How can the people be empowered to supervise politicians more satisfactorily than simply casting a vote periodically?’
These constitutional challenges are once again exposed by the organisation of the Ma-Xi meeting. Despite the outburst of criticism from Taiwan-watchers, the real issue is not about independence or unification, or anti-China versus pro-China. That the meeting did not transform cross-Strait relations and was largely symbolic is also beside the point. Rather, we must acknowledge more pressing consequences for the state of Taiwan’s democracy. It is clear that the political system allowed this meeting to be organised in a secretive and unconstitutional way without the individuals involved facing any procedural or institutional scrutiny of their actions. This is the most alarming issue.
Arguably the President of the United States of America is the most powerful individual in world politics, yet even he is accountable, especially to Congress, for his actions. Likewise the British Prime Minister is answerable to his colleagues in Parliament, and on live television Tony Blair faced an extraordinary level of scrutiny by a Parliamentary select committee over his decisions in the Iraq War. Few political systems, including established democracies, would witness such a public inquiry into the conduct of their leaders.
When difficult decisions are taken, we have seen time and again the way American presidents and British prime ministers have faced tough questioning by their peers. In contrast, neither Taiwan’s legislature nor the Executive Yuan are in any credible position to ensure that the president will not abuse his power, or that he will face an appropriate level of scrutiny if he does.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je once said that the remedy for political problems is not the curtailment of democracy, but rather the introduction of even more democracy. The way the Ma-Xi meeting was organised demonstrates that Taiwan remains a young, juvenile democracy that still faces many challenges, and its response will determine how Taiwan’s democratic political culture develops. We often forget just how new democracy is to Taiwan. We have been witness to so much positive change there, including two transfers of presidential power in free and fair elections (a third transition is imminent) that we are sometimes complacent.
But we need to have confidence in the potential of the process and understand that the attractive power of democracies lies in the fact that they are by nature messy. They encourage political participation by their citizens; they demand transparency in their legislative processes and accountability when controversial decisions are taken. Democracy is about the competition of ideas; it provides the space for disagreement, debate and dissension; protest is permitted; democracy is chaotic and rarely orderly. Most importantly, the consolidation of democracy is never complete because democracy is a process, not an end in itself, and democracies make mistakes. How the consolidation unfolds depends on how they deal with these mistakes and design processes, procedures and institutions to make sure that the mistakes are not repeated.
The Ma-Xi meeting exposed the flaws in Taiwan’s political system. Taiwan must acknowledge that the absence of transparency that allows the President (of whatever colour) to avoid legislative and executive oversight – to avoid accountability – is a serious defect that must be remedied. Making mistakes is inevitable; failing to learn from those mistakes is inexcusable.
Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Associate Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham and Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London. She is also the Secretary-General, European Association of Taiwan Studies. Gary D. Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, and the University’s Director of International Strategy.