June 13, 2007

Democracy's Hangover: Taiwan and the KMT

Across Eastern Europe and Russia, since the fall of communism, one of the most notable political features of the new democratic world has been that in different places and at different times, people have felt nostalgic for the old world. In some countries like the Baltic States the allure of communism seems particularly weak- in others like Belorussia and Russia itself politicians scrape and bow to the memory of those times. Even say in East Germany the communist party has revived and returned to receive votes if not power.

Many people think that this has something to do with the nature of the Communist past and Capitalist present- and there is obviously some truth in this- there were losers from the economic reforms of the 1990s however neccessary those reforms were for the longterm prosperity of the countries involved. There were also losers from political reform- people who found the transition to the often complicated and venal world of political accusation and openness difficult to harmonise with the ideal of a virtuous government- an issue which hasn't exactly evaporated in traditional democracies in the West either.

Andrew Leonard in Salon this week though provides details of a report which suggests that the nostalgia for dictatorship may not be a purely ex-communist phenomena. Taiwan made the transition from a nationalist dictatorship to a democracy in the late 1980s- since then there have been contested elections but it was only in 2000 that the ruling party since 1949, the KMT, were forced out of power and replaced by the Democratic Progressive Party whose candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected President.

As Leonard rightly describes the government of the DPP has not been entirely successful- though whether this is entirely their fault and not the responsibility of the KMT's obstruction of Chen at every step also is another question. Leonard though makes clear that there are some within Taiwan who feel nostalgic for the KMT's dictatorship and again its easy to imagine the losers from the DPP's emergance. The traditional clients of the KMT have lost out. But also one must recognise that in Taiwan the KMT are largely the party of the immigrants from 1949 who support reunification- consequently the DPP's rise to power is not just a rise to power of another party- its the rise to power of a party which seeks to redefine Taiwan from being the alternative capitalist China to being Taiwanese and not part of the Chinese story at all. That's a gross over simplification but it gives an indication of some of the issues at stake.

Perhaps one of the most pertinant issues though that this throws up and one say that if projects to democratise elsewhere succeed they will also throw up is that democratisation is not a simple process. It involves losers- and often highly influential and powerful losers- and those losers have a voice and are often upset. We tend to envisage the process of becoming a democracy as a painless one- rather I think we should imagine that becoming and sustaining a democracy is a very painful process. It requires party change (something that South Africa hasn't accomplished yet- the ANC needs there to lose power and be happy with losing power) and it requires people to realise that politics is messy- there is bound along the way to be regret and nostalgia for a more certain past- that doesn't invalidate democracy as a way to govern but perhaps its something that we should expect and plan for when countries become democratic.


Michael Turton said...

Yup. Good post. Not many outside of Taiwan really get what is going on here.


Vino S said...

I think there is a difference between the nostalga for communism among some people in the ex-USSR and the nostalga for KMT rule in Taiwan that you allude to. In one case, it is the poor - those who lost out from the change to capitalism - who feel nostalgic for the old system, where they enjoyed a higher standard of living. In capitalist countries thast move to democracy, it is the old elites that may well lose out. It is thus the bitterness of those who have power and wealth and then lost their power that you are referring to re Taiwan. In the ex-USSR, it is the poor who feel nostalgic for the old days since they were (in some ways) better off then. The elites are the ones who have taken advantage of their apperachik connections to do well in the new economic conditions.

edmund said...

Good post- almost enitrly agree. I should add given te natinal question and that the KMT became decmoratic before they lost power (ie they'd won a democratic election beforehand i'm fairly certian) i don't think it's just nostaglia for dicatroship there are big national issues at stake which are entirely separable from democracy-dictatorship.

Having said that I think they're less democratic history helps explain they're so much less pro PRC.

Vilno a lot of the worries among ex communism are the same as this (and I im aigne they're are less well off peol who are hurt in counties like taiwan too by the change in power- in post aparthdi south africa for example the poorest whitesh ave been very hurt) it's of tne the old nomeculture who resent he changes most - indeed there's often been a revesal of usual voin aligns -ie the middle class the old bureactrats have voted left the poor right. Eg in post libertion German elections.