Democratic Consolidation in Taiwan: Inspired Political Reform Needs Effective Leadership

If the transition to democracy – liberalization, pluralization, and competition for power – is the key first step, consolidation institutionalizes those changes and guarantees both their permanence and their effectiveness.

Taiwan faces daunting choices in addressing the challenge of China. Those choices must be made well, since the Taiwan people will have to live with them for some time to come, perhaps forever. But if the political system – the mechanism by which those choices are made – is defective, then the people’s interests will not be well served.

Many political scientists, myself included, share the concern that the health of the current Taiwan political system is being seriously undercut by some fundamental problems. Prof. Shelly Rigger, for example, concludes that Taiwan’s institutions – semi-presidentialism, the legislature, the party system, the electoral system, and the mass media – work together in an interlocking way to reduce accountability, foster a zero-sum political psychology, promote policy deadlock, ensure suboptimal policy performance, and defer consensus on the rules of the game. Leaders, parties, and politicians act in ways that suit their narrow interests but are dysfunctional for the public at large.

If this diagnosis is correct, then the political system must be reformed for other policy changes to occur. Many observers have suggested that steps be taken to:

‧ Improve the integrity of public officials and reduce corruption.

‧ Raise the quality of the Legislative Yuan as an institution.

‧ Encourage political parties to enhance their capacity as originators of policy ideas.

‧ Upgrade the professional standards of the mass media.

‧ Evaluate the potential impact of the 2004-2005 electoral reform to ensure that it in fact will induce a more centrist political system.

‧ Alter the semi-presidential system to create a smoother and more effective system of checks and balances.

But these ideas are meaningless without a political process to overcome the partisan and polarized environment to bring them about. Above all, there is a need for inspired political leadership: to offer a sense of vision; to forge a centrist, reformist coalition; to craft and pursue a reformist agenda for strengthening institutions; to get politicians to rise above parochial interests and focus on national imperatives; to engineer a trust-building process between political blocs; and to foster public support for change.