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Taiwan's faltering democracy

The stakes for renewing good governance in Taiwan are high.

Democracy has fallen on hard times in Taiwan, and it's been a long while since its citizens felt good about their government. With candidates beginning to campaign for elections next January, this is the time to ask what, if anything, can be done about it.

Taiwan's democratic path sets it apart from its rival government on the Chinese mainland, which has strongly resisted Western-style political reforms. The island republic's peaceful transition to democratic rule more than a decade ago has helped to legitimize its status as a sovereign state. That's one reason Beijing so strongly opposed the first popular presidential election in 1996. Under pressure from China's hostile unification campaign, any democratic backtracking could jeopardize the legitimacy of Taiwan's government – and even dim the prospects for political changes coming out of Beijing.

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Hopes for political and constitutional reform were high in 2000 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by President Chen Shui-bian, ended the abusive, 55-year rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party. But those hopes have been dashed amid seven years of divided, deadlocked government. Budgets are often delayed or canceled. Almost no bills have passed. Rules are twisted for partisan advantage. Corruption in high places is rampant. The result is a serious crisis of governance that has depressed popular support for representative government and deepened cynicism. Opinion surveys by East Asia Barometer show that the Taiwanese have the lowest level of belief in the superiority of democracy in East Asia and unusually high nostalgia for the efficiency of authoritarian rule.

Today, the voices of reform are almost silent. Both major political parties appear mired in the special interests that disparage openness and accountability and bend the rules of fairness and due process.

Among the most distressing trends is the hardening conflict over national identity. Taiwan's main political camps – those who advocate a separate Taiwanese identity and those who seek eventual alignment with China – worry that the failures of government play into the hands of their rivals. They have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in emotional rallies and protest marches to promote their views, an unprecedented scale of activism.

Meanwhile, factionalism and lack of commitment to public service have greatly weakened Mr. Chen's administration. The high turnover of cabinet ministers has made continuity in office only a happy memory of the Nationalists' dictatorship.

One major casualty of this breakdown has been a more engaged policy toward China, which is Taiwan's No. 1 trading partner. Yet in the emotional disputes over national identity, encouraged by an irresponsible news media, it is almost impossible for government officials to be seen as favoring conciliatory policies toward China without being seen as anti-Taiwan, and vice versa. Under such circumstances, public policy debates get derailed and creative initiatives are squelched.

"For the great majority of Taiwan's electorate, the mechanisms of democratic accountability have failed," wrote political scientist Chu Yun-han of Taiwan's Academia Sinica in a recent paper.

He further concluded that the erosion of democratic legitimacy has large implications for China itself, where liberal intellectuals and senior leaders closely follow Taiwan's affairs. If Taiwan's democracy founders, it would discourage reformers in China who look to Taiwan to demonstrate the advantages of an open and competitive political system.

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It's not clear what the candidates in next year's presidential election would or could do about all this. Ma Ying-jeou, the mild-mannered, Harvard-educated former mayor of Taipei, is the main hope for reviving the ruling prospects of the Nationalists. His remedy for the legislative deadlock is to appoint a premier from the majority party, even if it's not his own. The DPP's Frank Hsieh, the Japanese-educated former premier and city of Kaohsiung's mayor, says he would form a coalition to win support for his government from a majority of lawmakers, something that Chen has refused to do.

But the larger crisis of governance that worries many of Taiwan's citizens will require stronger remedies than this. The campaign gives Messrs. Ma and Hsieh the opportunity to show voters the right skill set of "political entrepreneurship" and commitment to democratic values that can restore the bright promise of the first democracy in an ethnic Chinese society. People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are watching and waiting.

Julian Baum is a former Taiwan correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.