- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

Democracy building is a messy business. Looking at the general melee that has followed from the elections in Taiwan on Saturday, there's no other conclusion. The peaceful transfer of power from a ruling party to the opposition is the hard-earned miracle of democracy. It's an act that runs counter to certain atavisms of human nature, tribal instincts, the will to power.
It took Britain 700 years and two revolutions to move from the Magna Carta, the first charter to enshrine property rights and civil liberties, to universal suffrage in the 20th century. A worldwide survey underscores the point. According to Freedom House's 1999 survey of "Freedom in the World," out of a total of 191 nations and 61 territories, there are 117 electoral democracies self-described democracies, that is. And of those there can be counted only 88 free nations.
As early as 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "the nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal," a sentiment that echoed a 150 years later by Frances Fukuyama. Looking at the European democratic revolutions that followed in 1848, de Tocqueville surely seems to have it right. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, totalitarianism was on the march, spreading through the Soviet Union and its empire, through Germany, Japan, China, like a wildfire, embodied as communism and fascism.
After the end of the Cold War, predictions of the inevitability of democracy have fallen disappointingly short. The Baltic countries and Central Europe have successfully made the transition. But one only needs to look to the charade currently taking place in Russia as the country goes to the polls Sunday for the anticipated crowning of Vladimir Putin to the post of president which he already controls.
The question that Taiwan will answer is whether democracy is particularly antithetical to Asian culture. Arguments to that effect have come from as disparate sources as Samuel P. Huntington, President Lee Kwan-yew of Singapore and the leaders of Communist China.
As Liu Xiaoming, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy, told editors at The Washington Times yesterday, "Some people say our system is not democratic, but I believe it is best suited to a nation of 1.2 billion people." And: "The Communist system is deeply rooted in China." For good measure, he cast doubt on the democratic nature of the Taiwanese election.
Anyone who has been to Taipei and experienced the energetic political engagement of the Taiwanese people will surely reject that accusation. Indeed Taiwanese political debates have at times been so lively that deputies in the legislature have had to be separated by force.
What is also true is that Taiwanese democracy did not happen spontaneously. It took time and effort, economic development and outside pressure to bring Taiwan to the point of Saturday's vote. It was only the second time voters got to chose their own president, the first time no candidate had the advantage of incumbency.
Taiwan has progressed towards democratic governance over the course of the 1980s and '90s. While the Kuomintang (KMT), under Chian Ching-Kou, son of President Chiang Kai-shek, pursued economic policies that created the conditions for a prospering middle class, its human rights record was more problematic. In the U.S. Congress, pressure for Taiwan to democratize was mounting, and the country was often lumped together with the Philippines under Marcos as well as South Korea under Chun Doo Hwan.
Mr. Chiang responded with a series of important steps, lifting martial law, legitimizing the pro-independence political opposition, and choosing for his vice president a native of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui. Since then, Taiwan has built a system that works on every level, local and parliamentary.
What we are witnessing now is the real test. On Saturday, 39 percent of Taiwanese voters chose for the country's highest office the candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Sui-bian. Whether the KMT, which has ruled Taiwan since 1949, can transfer power in an orderly fashion is the focus now.
The venom directed against President Lee Teng-hui for allowing the KMT to lose the election was striking. The man who has guided Taiwan's transition to democracy was the object of fierce protests at the party headquarters, forcing the president to barricade himself inside. He was called "a traitor who sold out the nationalist party," "a monster," "lower than a dog." Ironically, Mr. Lee was accused of causing the KMT defeat by autocratically forcing his own candidate on the party, Vice President Lien Chan, who received just 23 percent of the vote. A popular contender, James Soong, split from the KMT and gathered 38 percent of the vote as an independent.
Having acquired a taste for democracy, peace and prosperity, the people of Taiwan will no doubt come through again. In their own way, they will stand as a light to the more than 1 billion people next door. That's probably why Beijing hates it when they vote.

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