The tough road to democratisation

Taiwan's transition to democracy provides key lessons to others still pursuing change

Taiwan has been hailed as a textbook example of a successful transition to democracy. At the end of the civil war in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), lost to Mao Zedong's communist forces and fled to the island. After almost four decades of martial law until 1987, Taiwan eventually held its first presidential election in 1996.

"It was a very long process of struggle for democratisation," said Asst Prof Fang-Yu Chen, lecturer at Soochow University's Department of Political Science, in a recent forum titled "A Freedom Beacon In Asia: Democracy And Social Movement In Taiwan And Thailand".

Chen said Taiwan's transition to democracy followed a top-down approach (an elite-led reform), but other factors -- such as public participation, international pressure, especially from the United States, power struggle at a high level, and the civilian control of the military -- came into play.

"There was successful democratisation in the 1990s without political violence, but there were some costs of the top-down approach. There was no transitional justice. President Lee Teng-hui had to make compromises with old elites to make sure they didn't take back their power and overturn democratisation," he said.

At the turn of the century, voters put the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) into power, marking an end of more than five decades of the KMT's rule.

Fei-Fan Lin, deputy secretary-general of the DPP, said protesters campaigned for democracy and social progress in the 1980s, which sometimes came into conflict with police forces. When students rose up in the 1990s, demonstrations evolved in a more peaceful manner.

"For example, the Wild Lily Student Movement demanded an amendment to the constitution and set a timetable for political reform. Their demands were accepted by President Lee. People believed they should follow some social rules to protest and gain more support from the general public," he said.

Before Lin took up the current position, he was the student leader of the Sunflower Movement. He said Taiwan and Thailand were similarly pursuing democracy, but differences lie in the fact that Taiwan is facing external pressure from China, while Thailand is seeing the backlash from the military.

"If I try to define, Taiwan is preserving democracy under threat, but Thailand is in the process of democratisation. There is a common ground for us. The current geopolitical environment is changed by authoritarian expansion," he said.

Parit Chiwarak, left, said the difference between Thailand and Taiwan lies in military coups in 2006 and 2014. Photo: Thana Boonlert

Parit Chiwarak, the protest leader of the Ratsadon Movement, said Thailand and Taiwan once shared the same fate of dictatorial rule during the Cold War, followed by the gradual process of democratisation from the 1980s onwards. After Black May of 1992, critics said it would be the military's last grasp on power. In 1997, the most arguably democratic constitution emerged.

"However, we suffered setbacks from coups in 2006 and 2014. It is where the fate of Thailand and Taiwan diverged," he said.

Parit said the authoritarian regime persists not only by the military's consolidation of power but also by the elite network. Unlike Myanmar's counterpart, the Thai military is not the largest player in the economy and politics. Also, it is not legitimate in itself, but depends on "the higher institution" the court forbids him from mentioning.

"When the popularity of the military declines, the regime can rely on another player and vice versa. It is different from the democratisation of many other countries in Asia in which, when the military fails, democracy rises," he said.

Parit said during the Cold War, Thailand allied with the United States, which supported any regime to combat communism. But when the major power withdrew support from the authoritarian regime, triggering a democratic transition in Asia, Thailand was reluctant to follow.

"Many studies show that the Thai elite wasn't familiar with democracy and didn't accept it easily," he said.

Parit Wacharasindhu, policy campaign manager of the Move Forward Party, said the state of Thai democracy is "a tug of war" between regressive and progressive forces. The first cause of democracy's decline is the military-drafted constitution of 2017, which, for example, allows 250 handpicked senators to vote for a prime minister.

"It means the election does not really respect the fundamental principle of one person one vote because at the end of the day, one senator has an equivalent amount of vote as one MP. But one MP comes from 70,000 votes. In a way, one senator has an equal amount of power to 70,000 people. 250 senators who are appointed by the military government have power equal to 19 million voters," he said.

Parit said the second cause is the extra-constitutional institution, for example, the military, that interferes in Thai politics. The most obvious case is when they stage a coup, but even when there is no putsch, they can wield influence via their own military parliament or make a political statement.

"An agenda to separate the military from politics is needed in Thailand," he said.

Parit said Taiwan and Thailand can join hands to push for the global agenda of democracy. First, they should overcome two rhetorics that undermine democracy. One is the idea that democracy is a Western concept when by nature it has universal value. The other is the idea that democracy is a matter of free and fair elections.

"It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for full democracy. We have seen an adaptation of the dictatorial regime from a blatant form of dictatorship like a coup to a more subtle form of dictatorship. They may get to power via election, but manage the country against democratic values based on the system of checks and balances," he said.

He said Thailand and Taiwan should also find democratic solutions to problems in society that have not been solved. For example, there has been an increasing level of inequality in many democratic countries. Provided that democracy cannot solve inequality, this form of government will be questioned more and more.

"It will leave the country more prone to a dictatorial regime which basically exploits this gap and poses certain populist measures that may be able to solve inequality on the surface and parade that as a structural answer to solving inequality," he said.

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