Flawed Democracy?A reflection on Taiwan’s democratic development

Flawed DemocracyA reflection on Taiwan’s democratic development


An Introduction


Having evaluated democratic systems in particular states, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), introduces the term of “Flawed Democracy” to indicate that democratic systems have shown faults in various aspects. Compared to “Full Democracy,” a flawed democracy struggles with issues that violate democratic normality. Compared with the “Hybrid Regime” and the “Authoritarian Regime,” the violations have notably increased. In EIU’s 2020-2021 report, the United States is indexed as a flawed democracy. Much of the blame was assigned to former President Donald Trump for the various unsettling policies or situations during his reign leading up to the presidential election campaign, such as racial unrests, ethnic conflicts, election fraud, police brutality, and voter suppression...etc.


What is more worrisome is that according to the report, 70% out of 167 countries got downgraded. To be specific, only 23 nations (13.8%) are now qualified as “Full Democracies”; while 52 nations (31.1%) have been classified as the “flawed democracies.” With the glooming trend, it is no wonder that renowned scholars such as Francis Fukuyama and Philippe C. Schmitter both have trouble standing optimistic for the future of democratic development. In fact, Larry Diamond, who participated in the research, bluntly pointed out that the world is now facing “Democracy in Retreat Globally.” In other words, the political experiences in both advanced democracies and third-world countries since the 20th century have proven that it is neither cheap nor painless to pursuit the perfectness of democracy.


Why Socrates rejected democracy?


From the way the world went all out in blind pursuit of democracy after World War I and World War II, the process of democratization has been exposed to unpredictable risks. The most common predicament was that when the government despised the people for being short of democratic literacy, the vast majority of governments were not much better off. Therefore, when neither the government nor the people had what it takes for democratic accomplishment, flooding excuses appear to justify distorted political maneuvers. We must have forgotten the Greek philosopher Socrates’ thought-provoking warning that one shall not blindly trust democracy to be a holly and flawless system, that its volatility makes it susceptible to becoming Mobocracy. Even the much-applauded voting mechanism could degenerate into mere manipulations skills. When people endowed with the right to vote do not possess the wisdom to distinguish right from wrong, what essence of democracy is left in voting?


Furthermore, without proper legalization to regulate digital management on the developed internet, “Cyber citizens” have fallen into a tool for the cyber army to spread fake news. From provoking voters to spreading disinformation, cyber warfare exacerbates the painful situations that Socrates had warned. In other words, the core value of democracy was meant to be a checked government of the people; instead, malevolent politicians are now forging and manipulating public opinion at will. Hence Socrates insisted that democracy must be accomplished on the goodness of knowledge rather than the evil of ignorance. Without the support of education, virtue, and knowledge, democracy can be irresponsible.


Is Taiwan's democracy flawless?


Despite having gone through authoritarian rule under the party-state system for nearly half a century, Taiwan's democratization has gained international recognition after its democratic consolidation. Renowned INGOs such as Freedom House, Human Right Watch, Amnesty International, Democracy without Borders, etc. have gradually upgraded Taiwan's democratic performance from a lower rank of "partly free" to " full freedom and democracy." In EIU's latest research, Taiwan has met the benchmark of full democracy for the first time. It is now one of the three full democratic countries in Asia, alongside South Korea and Japan. Taiwan is even dubbed as the "Beacon of Democracy" in Asia.


INGO's recognition of Taiwan's democratic performance is for sure something to be proud of. However, we should not disregard the inherent blind spots of those research and studies. Aside from the evaluations of foreign scholars, domestic insiders' observation provides unique perspectives that we cannot afford to underestimate. For example, the poll conducted by Taiwan Democracy Foundation and the Formosa E-newspaper's on Taiwan's democratic performance did not give out the same remarkable score as EIU did. With close examinations, can we still be sure that Taiwan's democracy outperforms that of the United States? With so many domestic issues beneath the surface, do we still have the confidence to claim that we have safely outgrown the league of "flawed democracy"? The following discussions help examine the democratic governance of Taiwan.


1. Selective democracy?


Renowned scholars Robert Dahl, Arend Lijphart, Larry Diamond, etc. pointed out that democracy is a logical system operating on multiple variables. No single variable constitutes democracy alone. It will not work to create a self-proclaimed democracy with selective variables. When a democracy lacks two basic scientific premises: 1. Seek truth from facts (honesty) and 2. Logic (rigorous inferring, no sophistication), it will reduce to a so-called Pseudo-democracy. Furthermore, with the attribute of public servants, government officials of democratic countries are "people-centered administrators." They must possess "3R" sense and traits: 1. Responsible, 2. Responsive, and 3. Reliable. That is to say, should the rights or interests of the people and the country be infringed, government officials must be ready to shoulder the responsibilities, no matter minor administrative or moral responsibilities, or more consequential ones such as political or legal responsibilities that lead to resignation. However, from Taiwan's history, we seldom see any ruling party willing to have their responsible officials step down for significant negligence. Some even blatantly eluded administrative or moral responsibilities and managed to get promotions after lying low for a while. How can this live up to the name of democracy?


2. A government got away from checks and balances


The most critical manifest of democracy is the safeguard of social justice. There are three types of justice to be protected: distributive justice, corrective justice, and procedural justice. Social justice must be achieved through the mechanism of "checks and balances."


With the past experiences of fully governed administrations in Taiwan, except executive and legislative branches were obtained through elections, other supposedly independent branches such as the judiciary, examinations, and supervisory branches would fall under the ruling party's control because of administration nomination. Given the utilitarian nature of politics, it would be hard for the ruling party to fall under checks and balances naturally. From experience, the winning party always took preemptive measures to seize control of the "Central Election Commission" (CEC) and "National Communication Commission" (NCC) after every presidential election. The purpose is to reel in the election law and the media in preparation for the next election. Therefore, the whole setting became "full party control without checks and balances," the people and opposition parties were reduced to political decorations under formalism.


3. The legitimacy of the election


In terms of theories and practices, public opinion is generally the prerequisite to examining democratic elections. Thus, democracy must come with elections, but elections do not necessarily warrant democracy. The crux lies in the protracted and complicated election process. Slight negligence can sabotage the whole political legitimacy. According to the research of scholar M. Harrop: voters, government, system, the rule of law, and free choices are all intertwined and indispensable variables.


Therefore, should we apply the M. Harrop indicators to examine the election process under both KMT and DPP governance, at least the following aspects are questionable: 1. Whether the election laws were drafted and revised complying with procedural justice under democratic participation? Moreover, was there a designated independent judiciary responsible for legal interpretation? 2. Was the election administration reasonably fair with the insistence on honesty, capability, and neutrality against factional influence? 3. Was the voting process completely free, equal, and anonymous? Was the elections tally process transparent and unbiased? 4. Were fair and inclusive competitions ensured during the campaigns? 5. Were the attempts to intervene from political parties, government, and factions effectively blocked out according to the laws?


Conclusion: shared responsibilities and obligations


All in all, a human history laden with "frustrated democracy" is proving that democracy might be a noble pursuit and that "ideal democracy" is no easy choice. It is thus relatable when scholars called it "expensive democracy."


Although long-term researches indicate that Taiwan's civil and political engagement has significantly improved, the ingrained mindset of Taiwanese to "play safe" can easily compromise the integrity of democracy. Especially when confronted with potential threats from those in power, "silence is golden" can fast become the dominating motto of their life.


In other words, true democracy does not reveal itself without the type of awakening that comes with painful lessons. Although Taiwan's flawed democracy still has room for debate, honesty is always the best policy for democratic societies and governments. As long as we have the determination and knowledge to reforms, a Taiwan of the people, by the people, and for the people can be optimistically expected.

 Written by Professor Chien-wen Peng

 Translated by Erica Lee




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