After more than ten years and as many elections,
a Taiwan voter's question is answered.

�What do you think of our democracy?� A laborer dressed in short blue pants and a matching shirt asked me this question at a government- sponsored election rally in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, one sweltering tropical afternoon in late November 1986. The election was the first of a series that would distinguish the transition of Taiwan�s authoritarian one-party regime toward a more or less competitive polity. It would take more than ten years�and my personal observations of ten elections in Taiwan�before I was prepared to answer the question.

The year 1986 was critical to the democratic transition process. Chiang Ching-kuo, president, ruling party chairman, and son of Chiang Kaishek, had initiated a gradual diminution of the roles of mainland emigres from the Chinese Civil War in governing the people of Taiwan. The results would include the coming to office of an elite of native Taiwanese and the altering of the scope of government. That afternoon, however, the outcomes of Chiang�s initiatives were not yet clear and the answer for my interrogator hardly obvious. Some suspected then and know now that Chiang (affectionately known as CCK) had to overcome opposition from fellow mainlanders before he could begin to plan to share power, much less actually complete this goal.

These first steps at political reform had emboldened long-fearful opponents to declare openly their non-party candidacies for seats in the National Assembly and the Legislative Yuan, still largely rubber- stamp parliamentary bodies controlled by the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT). That opponents had formed a political party despite martial law and ran formally as independents but functionally as partisans confirmed to Chiang�s critics that he could not control the pace of change. That candidates implicitly if not explicitly preferred that Taiwan abandon its claim to being the Republic of China (ROC), dedicated to recovering the China mainland from the People�s Republic of China (PRC), gave CCK�s adversaries evidence of sedition.

In this emotional campaign, what did a foreign observer think of Taiwan�s �democracy,� if that was what it was or about to become? Long ago, in training to be an interviewer, I had been taught to evade respondents� questions in order not to bias their responses to my questions. Thus, I parried, �So far, so good. What do you think?� The aging worker had exhausted his English. As I knew no Chinese, our conversation terminated. His question, however, would draw me back to Taiwan again and again.


Taiwan first drew my attention for no scholarly reason but from a propaganda effort on the part of the ROC government. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger implemented a radical shift in US policy toward the government of the PRC in Beijing, the ROC on Taiwan, as it began to re-designate itself unofficially, searched for ways to stave off the inevitable loss of diplomatic relations with the US and other governments. One of Taipei�s favored instruments of preventive diplomacy was a week�s tour of Taiwan, known since the Dutch settlements of the 18th century as Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Formosa.

Among the professions and occupations to which the ROC appealed for sympathy were US college and university presidents. In the summer of 1976, the director of a university association called to say that my name had been drawn randomly from the membership roster to be invited to visit Taiwan for a week. The association arranged for groups of 20 presidents (and spouses, if they liked) to fly first class to Taipei on China Airlines, the flagship carrier of the ROC, occupy elegant rooms in the Grand Hotel, visit historic sites, and meet with educators and public officials.

Soon after wining and dining campus presidents, ROC diplomats began courting directors of faculty and student international exchange programs. A colleague with these responsibilities produced an invitation for me to accompany him to Taipei for �a signing ceremony� that would launch (or so we hoped) an exchange of scholars. Another such invitation came the same year, reciprocal visits by two Taiwan university presidents were made to our campus, and there was one more trip for me in 1979�when Taiwan�s democratic transition was marred by the postponement of elections and the arrest and later imprisonment of several dissidents.

I thought that would be the end of my Taiwan travels, although not of reading about the place and its people. The volume of scholarship in English then was slender (it grew considerably soon thereafter), and one could cover the texts from the social sciences in a year or so of weekend reading. During this period, I volunteered to Howard Penniman, the peripatetic elections observer at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), that if and when he got around to studying Taiwan elections, I would be glad to participate. And in 1986, Penniman phoned to say that the ROC would host an observation team during contests for additional �supplementary seats� in the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan. (These seats increased the number of Taiwanese representatives without disturbing the mainlanders� majority control.) I was happy to join the team.

This surely ended a connection with Taiwan. But in 1989, upon laying aside administrative duties after 20 years, I unpacked forgotten papers and memorabilia, including clippings, documents, and files from my Taiwan travels. Discovering these coincided with learning that another round of supplementary elections would occur in December 1989, together with contests for 21 county magistrates and city mayors.

Former university administrators, like new assistant professors, pursue research as well as teach, but I had yet to commit myself to any serious inquiry. Why not look again at Taiwan�s elections, to see whether a likely problem or topic might emerge? Penniman organized another panel of observers, which I gladly joined, but I thought it appropriate that this time the ROC not bear the travel expenses. Our provost agreed, and I arrived a week before the AEI contingent to scout around on my own. Within a matter of days, a research project half-formed on paper, but, of course, I underestimated the time and resources it would require.

Ten years later, I probably have the minor distinction of having observed more Taiwan elections and more different kinds of elections there than any other foreign scholar or journalist. I have seen voting for small town mayors and village councils, county magistrates, and big city mayors and their councils; Taipei and Kaoshiung mayors and councils; the former provincial assembly and governor; the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan; the president; plus one recall election and several party primaries.


Every scholar approaches field work with an accumulation of perspectives, subject to modification as one learns more about the objects of study. Going native is a classic problem among field workers; after long residencies among a tribe or group, some become honorary members. Going adversarial is common for others who are explicit about their personal values and offended at seeing them contradicted in any setting, including those they observe for scholarly purposes. From early on, I tried to remain neutral, thinking of myself as a self-appointed appraiser of Taiwan�s steps in democratization.

As it happened, Taiwan held a major election every year in the last decade, except for 1999. I was able to appraise the status and prospects of democratic processes in Taiwan with the 1991 National Assembly elections and continued with the 1992 Legislative Yuan elections. The years 1993 and 1994 offered contests for several local and metropolitan offices, and 1995 and 1996 calendars recycled filling the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, as well as included the first direct presidential election. When the cycle returned to local offices in 1997 and 1998, Eric P. Moon of West Florida University and Deborah A. Brown of Seton Hall University became co-observers and co-appraisers. All told, we have analyzed ten elections, not counting primaries and recall elections.

In this analysis, I have relied on Robert A. Dahl�s Democracy and Its Critics, which has become one of the most influential books on democracy in the 20th century. Dahl�s criteria formalize generations of political theorizing about democracy: effective participation; voting equality; enlightened understanding; and, ultimately, exclusive popular control of a society�s agenda. These criteria became the basis for evaluating Taiwan�s progress or retrogression from one election to the other, and for criticizing specific features of Taiwan politics that fall short of democratic standards. Three features have remained consistently high on the list of discrepancies between democratic norms and Taiwan political practices:

The electronic media remain biased in favor of the ruling party because the KMT owns one of the three major channels and government agencies own the other two. The rise of cable television and the private ownership of print media only partially offset this advantage.

The high cost of campaigning limits the pool of available candidates for office. While making many candidates functionally ineligible is not peculiar to Taiwan, exorbitant electoral expenses also have led businessmen and other contributors to advocate reducing the frequency if not the number of elections. Enormous sums are spent printing flyers, banners, and posters; hiring campaign workers; and entertaining at rallies, parades, and donation dinners. Estimates of expenditures for these purposes are notoriously unreliable. Official reports evidently are untrustworthy because honest reporting would admit exceeding low levels allowed by law. In the mid-1990s, I estimated Taiwan�s per capita expenditures for elections to be well in excess of the legal limits in Taiwan, as well as those in the United States. In the United States, the Federal Election Commission reports typical individual candidate campaign costs to be in the range of $600,000 to $1 million for a congressional campaign. In Taiwan, campaign costs may run $2-$4 million for winning a parliamentary seat representing half as many constituents as those in the typical US congressional district.

It is never clear who pays for these huge expenses. To say that much of it is in cash, �under the table,� does little to identify the sources. The KMT owns many enterprises that produce considerable income dedicated to campaigns, but all parties have access to ready cash. And so seriously do some funders take their politics, they hate to lose; hence, they buy votes and later try to recover costs by graft from government.

Such discrepancies between ideals and practice represent new thresholds to be crossed in Taiwan�s continuing democratic reforms. While they were �tolerated� in the take-off period of power-sharing innovations, they now draw critical appraisal from domestic and foreign observers alike.

They do not, of course, detract from other measures of Taiwan�s democratic progress. These include unusually high voter turnout (70% is common in annual elections), vigorous campaigns that bring candidates close to all who are interested, and the increasing responsiveness of the elected to the electorate.


If Taiwan�s democratic scorecard comes up short in these ways while showing progress in others, there is an even darker side to the country�s elections. Reports of gangs, graft, and corruption in and after elections have been widespread, though foreign observers who depend on short-term visits rarely see this side. My first-hand observations of money politics are few and those of intimidation zero. This is not to say the dark side of electoral politics doesn�t exist in Taiwan, as evidenced by the interviews, memoirs, journalistic reports, and court cases attesting to the role of money in Taiwan�s political journey.

For my own impressions, I recall the day, on an early visit, when I sat in a lounge of a five-star hotel while a wealthy oppositionist impressed me with a stack of currency he was about to deliver to a candidate, presumably to remain unreported by either giver or receiver. In the same year, I visited a central Taiwan county candidate whose bullet-proof vest could be felt when I put a hand behind his back while our pictures were taken. At the same occasion, a young aspirant of the still-fledgling opposition party said he feared for his life in challenging the ruling party. And, as late as the 1995 legislative campaign, I attended the rally of an acknowledged gangster seeking elective office; he since has been incarcerated on Green Island, off the southern tip of Taiwan.

Among related items on an observer�s checklist during every election is violence. When poll watching on election day in 1989, I was struck by the presence of police, both at poll stations and at encampments throughout Taipei. In 1990, after a series of demonstrations (for the most part non-violent), mobile iron grates laced with barbed wire were stacked at the corners of major intersections or stored in recesses of parks, such as the Chiang Kaishek Memorial. By 1992, these barriers were routinely on display as election day approached. Members of the National Assembly as well as Legislative Yuan were up for election, and security apparatus was apparent near major government buildings, the Government Information Office, Foreign Affairs Ministry, and Presidential Palace. The tense campaign for mayor of Taipei two years later brought out similar shows of barbed wire, some located near the central and municipal offices of the KMT as well as major government buildings.

For many of the elections, riot control gear was in place by daybreak Friday morning, 24 hours before the voting was to begin. In the election of 1994, I walked around the Presidential Palace on mid-Friday afternoon, with the aim of recording on camera some of the security gear. Once I passed, or thought I had passed, a young, unarmed plainclothes guard, I raised a disposable camera for a long-distance shot of riot equipment a block away. Before I could click the shutter, I heard running feet from behind, then felt my right arm struck downward, while the guard exclaimed, �Why you take picture now?� He did not impound the camera, but waved a �no, no� sign and smiled. We went our separate ways, he to his post, I to the nearest photo shop. The print recorded his hand, not the riot equipment.


Toward the end of the decade, security measures seemed somewhat less obtrusive and interviews with the Peace Preservation Bureau less rewarding. This bureau, located in the National Police Administration, dates to martial law days. Its current responsibilities run to rounding up suspected mainland intruders, underworld figures, and others who threaten the peaceful conduct of elections. One attributes diminished concern for violence to the routinization of elections and to participants learning to accept defeat gracefully in the confidence they might win another day.

Indeed, since martial law expired in 1987, Taiwan�s electoral processes have become increasingly routine. Many procedures date to the period before 1980, when local elections became well established. These include ten-day to two-week campaign periods, designating Saturdays as voting holidays, adding extra trains and buses to convey voters to their home districts, and meticulous counting and prompt reporting of ballots by trained and experienced poll workers.

Many practices became familiar from one election to another, including street campaigning with the use of sound trucks; door-to-door solicitation with leaflets, banners, posters, and literature; and, as election day approached, visits by village chiefs and other local cadres with red envelopes containing cash payments for voters targeted for mobilization, followed by vigorous denials of such conduct. Each successive election, except for the 1996 presidential contest, seemed duller or less interesting than the previous one.

In 1996, the re-election of Lee Teng-hui revived excitement because this was the first time the presidency had been filled by direct election�heretofore, the National Assembly had ritualistically endorsed the ruling party�s nomination. This also was the year the People�s Republic of China launched missiles across the northern and southern tips of Taiwan island, presumably to remind Taiwan voters that the PRC leadership was far from pleased with Taiwan�s elections, and equally displeased that President Lee had been granted a US visa to make a �private� trip to his alma mater, Cornell University.

If the PRC�s saber-rattling or, rather, missile-lobbing was not routine, the Taiwanese electorate�s response was. Voter turnout was as high as ever, in some places higher, and the outcome was the opposite of what Beijing would have liked. For many voters, the most important element in the election was that it was the first direct presidential election in Taiwan�s 400-year history, or in 5,000 years of Chinese history.

The year 2000 offers the second instance of direct election of president. What might have been a routine event, in a clear-cut contest between the KMT and the DPP, now seems to have taken a different direction. Both parties confronted splinter elements that threatened to convert a two-party contest into a four-candidate race. The KMT�s nominee, Lien Chan, vice president and former premier, drew challenge from James Soong, former governor of Taiwan Province and former secretary-general of the party. Soong�s challenge defied others� expectations, namely that a mainlander could not be a serious candidate for president in a polity divided 85 percent native born, 15 percent mainland born.

The DPP also split between Chen Shui-bian, former though defeated mayor of Taipei, and Hsu Hsin-liang, former party secretary-general and a long-time opposition figure. So serious was the DPP split that the division between Chen and Hsu seemed likely to guarantee the DPP�s defeat. Only the hope that Lien and Soong would so evenly divide the KMT vote that Chen might slip in remain to excite DPP ambitions.

The failure of the political parties to control their nominations illustrates the worldwide decline of parties as instruments of candidate selection. Taiwan voters, with a reputation for their growing sophistication, resembled voters elsewhere. To many of them, the candidate is more important than the party.


So what do I think of Taiwan�s democracy, and its future? Democracy is a process, not a point or a place, and that process produces outcomes that stabilize or destabilize the process itself. Aristotle believed democrats invariably promise so much for people�s support that they overburden their regime with commitments until popular sentiments welcome corrections by tyrants. Schumpeter, in the twentieth century, thought that the creativity required for both democracy and capitalism eventually destroys both. Since Schumpeter, cyberneticians have spilled over into political theory with ideas about feedback and internal correction mechanisms. Studies of democratization have become a burgeoning service subsector, and scholars who engage in this new activity search for institutions that operate in predictable ways to maintain democratic equilibria.

Will Taiwan, its people and leaders, be in the forefront or the backwater of successful efforts to effect such an equilibrium? The extent to which democratic processes become regularized offers a clue in Taiwan�s case, as in all others. One encouraging index is the pervasive experience among the electorate with the practices and procedures of voting. Electoral experience is more than governmental administration of ballot boxes, as was brought home to me on a Sunday afternoon in Sanchung City during a primary election. In Taiwan, political parties, not the government, administer primaries. In this instance, a young man presided over the electoral arrangements, including opening the polling station and eventually counting and certifying the ballots. Impressed by his adherence to rules and responsibilities befitting a veteran administrator, I inquired whether he had worked at an election before, perhaps on behalf of the central, provincial, or county election commissions, all of which train and carefully monitor polling station workers. No, he had learned to conduct elections as a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce!

In the year 2000, Taiwan voters will experience their second direct vote for president. The conduct and performance of that election and its participants mark the next data points to be noted in anchoring Taiwan�s democratization in secure institutions. By most indications, Taiwan and its people appear to be moving steadily down the road to democracy�but, like the people of Taiwan, we will have to wait until the ballots from this election are counted, as well as other elections in the future. And, if the PRC actions during the last presidential election on Taiwan were not reminder enough, it would be na�ve to believe that all the conditions of Taiwan�s future depend on the Taiwanese themselves, or on their Jaycees experience. Many factors� and not only Beijing leaders� most recent displays of firepower and angry rhetoric, or the support of Americans eager to foster democracy on Taiwan� can have an impact on the election�s outcome, and on Taiwan�s continuing progress toward democracy.

Recommended Readings:

Chao, Linda and Myers, Ramon H. The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Rigger, Shelley. Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy. London: Routledge, 1999.

photo of J. A. Robinson James A. Robinson (CC �64) is president emeritus, University of West Florida, where he teaches�Democracies.� Before undertaking two decades of administration, he wrote The House Rules Committee and Congress and Foreign Policy-Making. His current research specializes in identifying varieties of democratic experiences in Asia.

[back]Return to COSMOS 1999 Table of Contents
[back]Return to COSMOS Journals