Democracy in Action Ain't Always Pretty

While Americans patiently wait for the USA to clear up the electoral mess in Florida, confusing and frustrating as it is, the rest of the world waits just as patiently with bated breath. Because, as you may be aware, the President of the USA is not just the President of the USA -- his responsibilities include caretaking the entire world. That's the reality of being the reigning imperial power, like it or not (and there are definitely a lot of folks, both inside and outside of the USA, who are vehemently nots). Americans should realize that the eyes of the world are upon what happens in the next few weeks; some nations experimenting with fledgling democracy are taking notes and trying to learn lessons (as much as what not to do as what to do, mind) from the American political machinery.

Taiwan is one of those fledgling democracies, this island of 23,000,000 having only known freedom from a one-party dictatorship for a little over a decade. Up until earlier this year, the KMT (Kuamindong) Party enjoyed unbroken majority rule since the end of WWII. Six months ago Taiwan elected its first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). Taiwan employs a parliamentary system, with various minor and major parties forming coalitions and working together to form a goverment. The DPP, which holds a large minority in the legislature, formed an anti-KMT alliance with the other minority parties when Chen took power [note: Chinese family names come first, not last as they do in the West. Ex: I would be know as Burks Brian-Daniel using the Chinese system]. Now the ruling coalition is coming apart, and after only six months as president, the KMT has formed an alliance with the other minority parties to force a recall of Chen -- in other words, the KMT wants to kick Chen out of the presidency. To do so would require a 2/3 majority vote in the legislature; the KMT has enough votes to press for a recall vote, but have not formally filed a motion yet.

What this all means is that right now the political situation in Taiwan is rather unstable. One thing that impressed some of my students (whom I teach adult conversation class) with the situation in the USA is Americans' lack of violence. In Taiwan, there have been several riots and street fighting over this constitutional crisis. The Taiwanese I've talked to find such mob violence as a means of political action embarrassing, a sign of a nation still immature to democracy. And I should point out that the political violence doesn't just end on the street -- legislators have gotten into knock-down fistfights and hair-pulling on the floor of the national congress. Most Taiwanese, according to the polls, don't want to see Chen go, whether they support him or not, for the simple reason that they want to see their country stay stable, rather than kick out a president after only six months in office. Chen is an unpopular president, but the Taiwanese have made it clear that they will put up with him as the price for some degree of political stability.

The brouhaha started when Chen, under pressure from environmentalists in his party, vetoed plans for a 4th nuclear power plant on the island. I'm not going to go into the pros and cons of the nuclear plant here (I'm for it), but suffice to say that certain people connected to high officials in the KMT had business interests in the plant. Taiwan is a fairly corrupt society, particularly when you get to the upper levels of businessmen & politicians, who openly enjoy a very comfortable "scratch my back" type of relationship. So the KMT decided to send a message to Chen that they weren't going to let him interfere with their business interests. Also, the KMT not so secretly lusts to regain a bit of the power they enjoyed unchallenged for five decades; they are not used to sharing power in a multiparty government, all they know is they don't like it. No one wants to go back to the days of military dictatorship, but the KMT are undermining the fragile Taiwanese democracy with their naked power play.

Taiwan is still learning how to practice democratic politics, and it still has a long way to go. Like many developing (and some developed) countries, corruption is a serious obstacle. Right now, Taiwan is ruled by corporate interests and gangsters -- yes, the Chinese mafia (the Triads, as traditionally known) have their hands in a shockingly large amount of business that goes on here. Once I was grasping to explain the word 'gangster' to a group of highschool students, not knowing the Chinese equivalent. I fumbled around for a bit and finally said, "You know, the people who run the pubs and discos?" "Oh, those people," my students realizing exactly what I meant by 'gangster', since in fact all of the pubs & discos & half the KTVs & other entertainment joints are controlled by the mob in Tainan County. Well, except for one pub owned by an ex-pat Canadian who's lived here for several years, who assures me as a man in the business himself that yes, all of the pubs in Tainan except his are controlled by the mob. Hell, the other week I was in a pub myself and had a pair of gangsters offer me a glass of Johnny Walker -- they were nursing a whole bottle, since they had to sit there in the pub all night for "protection". And the further up you go in the social ladder, so I'm told, the worse it gets -- businessmen/politicians/gangsters all sort of overlap round these parts. Anyway, with the stock market crash, the Singapore Airline crash, the massive typhoon that killed over 50 people (one of the scariest nights of my life having to hear that wind slamming everything that wasn't nailed down halfway across the South China Sea), and now this political crisis, this hasn't been a good month for Taiwan. Look on the bright side -- it could be worse, as it is in almost any other South Asian country (like, say, the Phillipines' current troubles with their shitty government). So seen in comparison to lots of other places in the world -- most of the rest of the world, as a matter of fact -- what's going on in the USA doesn't seem so bad. There aren't any tanks in the streets and the people aren't resorting to mob violence, which to me is heartening, proof that at least in a few places democracy still works, however awkwardly. And whoever said that democracy wasn't supposed to be awkward? Whoever said that democracy was easy?

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