1.5  Democratization (1975-1992)

The ROC began holding local elections almost as soon as it took over Taiwan.  County executives, county assemblies, town mayors, town councils, and village heads have been popularly elected since the early 1950s.  The Taiwan Provincial Assembly was also popularly elected from the early 1950s to its abolishment in 1998.  National offices, however, were not elected during the 1950s and 1960s.  The ROC finally promulgated a constitution in 1946, and the first elections for the national representative bodies, including the Legislative Yuan, Control Yuan, and National Assembly, were held in 1947.  However, when the first term of these representatives expired, the ROC no longer controlled the Chinese mainland, and it was impossible to hold new elections.  Instead, the regime decided that the first term would be extended until it regained control of the mainland and could hold new elections.  Of course, this never happened.  Instead, these representatives effectively held office for life, guaranteeing the KMT would have unquestioned obedience in the legislature, National Assembly, and Control Yuan.  Unfortunately for the regime, they were an unrenewable resource, and they began dying off at ever increasing rates in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  In order to infuse new blood, the regime began holding “supplemental” elections in 1969.  Only a few seats were open for election, though this number increased a bit in each election cycle.

During the authoritarian period, elections were dominated by local factions, which were almost always affiliated with the KMT.  Local factions were usually centered on competition over control of the county government, though some were constructed on lower administrative units, such as townships.  Most counties had two or sometimes three local factions, and the KMT played them off against each other, never letting either faction grow strong enough to dominate the county.  Local factions organized along clientelistic lines, and almost never had any ideological preferences.  The implicit bargain was that they could manage public construction projects and get rich if they would not question the KMT’s authority.

During the 1950s and 1960s, there were a handful of independent politicians who were able to win elections.  However, they were not allowed to cooperate across county lines.  New political parties were forbidden.  Open criticism of the regime was confined to the ten day official campaigning period, and there were strict limits that could not be crossed even then.  Any mention of Taiwan Independence, for example, was strictly forbidden and violators were quickly dealt with by the secret police.

Under CCK, the regime began to loosen its grip.  In the early 1970s, large public demonstrations were tolerated for the first time.  One of the earliest was a pro-regime demonstration against Japanese actions in the Diaoyutai Islands led by an NTU student named Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九.  In 1975, allegations of rigging elections prompted opposition complaints, and some independents started to cooperate and form a collective identity as the “Tangwai” (黨外 “outside the party”).  The 1977 elections marked the first real success for the Tangwai.  They won control of the Kaohsiung and Taoyuan County governments, and independents won 21 of the 77 seats in the Provincial Assembly.  The Tangwai looked to build on this success in the supplemental elections scheduled for December 1978, but these elections were canceled at the last minute because of the USA’s decision to recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China.  The regime managed to survive this blow to its legitimacy, but the opposition increased the pressure by building an island-wide organization.  The opposition’s vehicle was the Formosa Magazine 美麗島雜誌.  The magazine recruited several prominent Tangwai figures as consultants, editors, and writers, and it opened several offices around the island.  By late 1979, the magazine was functioning as a de facto political party.

The regime cracked down in December 1979 in what became known as the Kaohsiung Incident.  On International Human Rights Day (Dec 10), the Tangwai held a demonstration in Kaohsiung.  KMT security forces penned the demonstrators in, and the incident turned violent.  Scores of demonstrators were arrested.  Eventually, the government decided to release all but the eight most prominent leaders.  These eight were put on trial and sentenced to terms ranging from twelve years to life imprisonment.  The regime did allow some media coverage of the trial, hoping to discredit the Tangwai.  However, the effect was exactly the opposite.  The fifteen defense lawyers were able to make a very strong case that it was the regime that was in the wrong.  The Kaohsiung Incident is second only to the 2-28 Incident in significance in Taiwan’s post-war political development.  While the KMT was able to suppress the opposition for a few years, in the long run, the Kaohsiung Incident proved to be a catalyst for the opposition movement.  Almost all of the figures who would go on to found the DPP in 1986 and lead it for the next 20 years were prominent in the Kaohsiung Incident.  Among the defendants and defense lawyers, Yao Chia-wen 姚嘉文, Chiang Peng-chien 江鵬堅, Huang Hsin-chieh 黃信介, Shih Ming-teh 施明德, Chang Chun-hung 張俊宏, and Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 would all serve as DPP chair, while You Ching 尤清 and Chen Chu 陳菊 would be elected mayors of Taipei County and Kaohsiung City.  Chang Chun-hsiung 張俊雄, Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌, and Frank Hsieh 謝長廷 would serve as Premier, and, of course, Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 and Annette Lu 呂秀蓮 would serve as President and Vice President.

During the early 1980s, the Tangwai struggled to re-establish its presence, but it managed to repeatedly demonstrate that it could win at least 20% of the national vote.  By the mid-1980s several Tangwai figures were openly mooting the possibility of forming a new political party in defiance of martial law.  It was unclear whether the KMT would allow such a step or whether it would opt for repression again, as it had in 1979.  When the Tangwai finally did declare the establishment of the Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨, DPP) in Sept 1986, the KMT decided to not to crack down.  In fact, this decision was made by CCK against the demands of several hardliners in the military and security apparatus.  CCK also decided to lift martial law in 1987 and took steps to ensure that a third generation of Chiangs would not succeed him in power.

Chiang died in 1988 and was succeeded by his Vice President, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝, LTH).  LTH’s accession to power marked the first time that a native Taiwanese had held the presidency and was seen as a milestone for Taiwan.  However, LTH was by no means in firm control of the KMT or the state.  Rather, he shared power with several other leaders, and many contemporary observers expected him to be marginalized.  However, LTH proved to be brilliant at the art of political infighting.  Over the next five years, his faction, which became known as the Mainstream Faction 主流派 and was centered around native Taiwanese and big businesses, steadily grew in strength relative to the Non-Mainstream Faction 非主流派, which was centered around Mainlanders in the military and security apparatus and demanded an adherence to orthodox KMT ideology on unification.  In 1990, the Non-Mainstream Faction was only able to mount a feeble challenge, and LTH was easily re-elected president.

While some consider the first direct presidential elections in 1996 to be the final step in Taiwan’s democratization, I would argue that the democratic era began in 1992.  In 1991, the Council of Grand Justices ruled that all the old representatives elected on the mainland in 1947 had to retire.  The National Assembly was fully elected for the first time in December 1991 and the legislature was finally fully elected in December 1992.  These two elections marked the first time the KMT gave voters a real opportunity to reject or legitimize its power.  The KMT won clear majorities in these founding elections, though the DPP established itself as a clear and powerful potential alternative.

Both the KMT and DPP claim credit for Taiwan’s Political Miracle, the largely bloodless democratic transition.  The DPP argues that the efforts of the Tangwai Movement and the DPP forced the authoritarian regime to relax its constrictions.  The people of Taiwan forced the KMT to give them democracy.  The KMT argues that the Tangwai and the DPP never really had enough strength to force the regime to do anything.  Its security apparatus could easily have cracked down at any time.  Instead, the KMT, starting with CCK, gradually relaxed its rule of its own volition when it judged Taiwan to be ready for more democracy.  The KMT led the democratization movement with the support of the Taiwanese people.  After all, they point out, voters did not throw the KMT out of power when the opportunity arrived.

3 Responses to “Democratization”

  1. The Incredible 1994 Taipei Mayoral Debate: Plus Ça Change … | Thinking Taiwan Says:

    […] were there two blue candidates to begin with? Basically, as Nathan Batto explains in these two posts, President Lee, leader of a “mainstream” KMT faction (主流派) of Taiwanese and […]

  2. David Lee Says:

    “CCK also decided to lift martial law in 1987 and took steps to ensure that a third generation of Chiangs would not succeed him in power.”

    Hello, would you happen to know CCK’s motivations to lift martial law and block further family dynasty power? This relinquishing of power seems like a historical oddity because of the saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It seems like an unexpected act of human social kindness and justice.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      It was not merely an act of generosity. There was growing pressure for fundamental change both within the KMT regime and, more importantly, from the larger society.

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