Two Faces of Democratic Transition

Alexandre Mansourov
Alexandre Mansourov Visiting Scholar, U.S.-Korea Institute

April 6, 2000

The most important choices in the month of March were not made in Washington, Berlin, or Tokyo. They were cast by the peoples of Russia and Taiwan, who closed the book on their past and launched their countries into a new democratic era.

When I visited Taipei as part of the Taiwan election observation mission and stood on stage behind Chen Shui-bian at his last pre-election rally, I experienced the same enthusiasm of the crowd, excitement and sense of historical mission that I felt during the latest presidential election campaign in Russia.

These two elections show us just what these two nascent democracies have in common, how much they can learn from one another, and how they can grow together through their painstaking democratic transitions.

On March 18 the people of Taiwan voted for the rule of law and clean government and chose Chen, the opposition DPP candidate, to be their next president. They put an abrupt end to the 54 year-old domination of the Taiwanese political system by the authoritarian KMT and to the 12 year-old single-handed rule by the KMT president, “Mr. Democracy,” Lee Teng-hui.

On March 26 the people of Russia voted for law and order and for fight against government corruption, and elected a political neophyte with the long KGB background, Vladimir Putin, to be the next president of the Russian Federation. They yearned to put an end to the economic depression, chaos and lawlessness caused by social and economic upheavals in the 1990s, during the family rule of the man who had brought them democracy, Boris Yeltsin.

Democratization unleashed unbridled nationalist passions both in Russia and Taiwan and undermined the long-established Leninist party-states, their command-and-control monopolistic economies and authoritarian social orders. In both countries, the process of democratization led to social dislocations aggravated by economic depression in Russia and an economic boom in Taiwan. It also allowed for the corrosive influences of intimate links between political power and financial oligarchy, between politicians and organized criminal underworlds.

Democratic transition

Both the Russian and Taiwanese presidential elections have historical significance which is likely to outlive their immediate outcomes. Both are the second relatively free and fair democratic elections held in the past five years, which cemented the democratic rule in these countries. Both elections symbolize the formal completion of the peaceful democratic transition that ended the 74-year monopoly on power by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Russia and the 88-year one-party dictatorship by the KMT in the Republic of China.

Both are major milestones in the peaceful transfer of power from the aging generation of idealist revolutionaries with ideological education, rooted in the old authoritarian Leninist regimes, like Yeltsin, 67, and Lee, 79, who launched the democratization processes in Russia and Taiwan, respectively, in the late 1980s, to a new, younger generation of Westernized pragmatic reformers with law degrees, namely, Putin, 47, and Chen, 49, who came of age during the turbulent years of political liberalization of the 1990s.

Both democratic elections took place amid the rising wave of nationalism and the war or near-war-like background. The war in Chechnya increased Putin’s popularity dramatically, and the war talk from Beijing, paradoxically, played out in Chen’s favor.

Both leaders campaigned on the vows to fight corruption and clean up the government, distance themselves from financial oligarchs and “black gold” politics and bring more honesty and fairness into governance.

The last but not least commonality is that the winner in both elections was not the first choice of the US, to put it mildly. Many US officials expressed strong reservations about Putin and were wary of Chen and kept his party at the arms length.

But, the paradox is that despite the US profound apprehensions, both presidents-elect may turn out to be more sympathetic to the US wishes and more accommodating of the US interests than pundits generally assume them to be.

To be sure, there are also substantial differences in two cases. The Russian president-elect is the ultimate bureaucratic insider who rose like a meteor through the corridors of power in the Kremlin, thanks to his loyalty and personal connections with the Yeltsin family.

In contrast, the Taiwanese president-elect is an outsider, the ultimate social activist who battled the KMT government in the streets and in courts most of his life and rose to power on the wave of a protest-driven popular social movement. Putin was anointed by the outgoing President Yeltsin as his official heir, whereas Chen had to fight hard against Lee’s official heir apparent, Lien Chan.

Putin had control over most of the government-sponsored TV channels and media outlets in Russia and used it in full to smear his political opponents and positively publicize his own image during the campaign. In contrast, Chen had to break through the information blockade imposed by the KMT-controlled TV stations and newspapers in Taiwan and had to withstand the barrage of negative campaign ads sponsored by the KMT and indirectly endorsed by the Lee government.

Putin’s campaign had bottomless government coffers at its disposal, whereas Chen had to rely on meager resources of his thrifty grass-roots supporters to overcome the lavish campaign spending by the wealthiest party in the world, the KMT.

As a result, Putin was able to become a majority president, having won 52.52 percent of voters in Russia, whereas Chen is a minority president, having gained support of only 39.8 percent of the popular vote.

Consequently, Putin and his party, “Unity,” believe that the Russian people gave them a mandate to govern by themselves without entering into any coalition with any other political forces. In contrast, Chen and the DPP made reconciliatory gestures toward the losing parties and seem to be interested in attracting professional expertise from the former ruling party and in forming some kind of a coalition government in Taiwan.

Judging deeds, not promises

Despite his talk of reform, there is likely to be some continuity in the government priorities, senior personnel (especially on the domestic front) and methods of governance under the new Putin administration. In contrast, one can expect considerable changes in the government agenda, composition of the senior bureaucracy and the ways government operates in Taiwan.

However, whatever the differences, with the election of Putin and Chen, the democratic process won in both countries. In the end, both Russia and Taiwan saw their democratic transitions completed with relative success in 2000. But, will Russia and Taiwan be better off under their respective new leadership? Both leaders say all the right things right now, but they will ultimately be judged by their deeds.

Learning from one another

In sum, even within the restricted bounds of the current official “Four No’s” policy of the Russian government towards Taiwan, the two nascent democracies have plenty to learn from each other and can do a lot to grow to maturity together.

Both countries will only benefit from more academic exchanges and the so-called “second-track interaction” involving bilateral academic discussions of such issues of mutual interest as their respective experiences in democratization and political liberalization, structural economic reform, lessons of history, separation of big businesses from government, fight against corruption and foreign influences on domestic politics.

In order to promote greater mutual understanding, more regular parliamentary and cultural exchanges should be encouraged. It would help a great deal in deepening the expert interest toward Taiwan in Russia, if ROC foundations considered more positively Russian requests for academic research grants. It goes without saying that the private-sector economic exchanges should be vigorously promoted, as well.