- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Taiwan’s election a week ago was a mess. Hundreds of thousands of protesters hit the streets to dispute the outcome. There are still questions about a bizarre assassination attempt. Charges about spoiled ballots have undermined acceptance of the vote by some, and a court challenge by the defeated opposition sought to invalidate the election and schedule a new one. On the surface, Taiwan’s democracy appears to be in serious trouble. But this conventional wisdom is wrong. Taiwan still serves as a thriving example of democracy for the rest of Asia — especially for the rest of China.

A more accurate reading of the political troubles in Taiwan suggests that the nation’s system is healthy. After decades of military-backed one-party rule, a society can expect a few growing pains during the transformation to a multiparty system based on popular suffrage. Given the close vote, it can be no surprise that there are volatile controversies surrounding the outcome. Out of 13 million ballots cast, President Chen Shui-bian was re-elected by only 30,000 votes — less than 0.2 percent of the electorate.

The 2000 presidential election in the United States proved that a contested election in and of itself does not harm the stability of a democracy so long as the solution to the controversy is based on the rule of law. In Taipei on Thursday, the High Court rejected the opposition’s lawsuit. In doing so, the justices also rejected the idea that one party can attempt to undo an election when the results do not suit their interests. On Friday, the Election Commission certified Mr. Chen as the winner. Now the country will move toward a recount, but the legitimacy of the original polls has been given an imprimatur by the judiciary. This is how a nation of laws is supposed to work.

The situation in Taiwan does not look nearly so grim when the stability of the island democracy is compared to the worsening political climate in Hong Kong. On Friday, the Chinese Communist Party announced that final interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law was the prerogative of Beijing. When the British handed their colony over to the Communists in 1997, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would be allowed to govern itself under an arrangement known as “One Country/Two Systems” — meaning it was part of greater China but not subject to the laws of the Communist mainland. The Basic Law, which is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, protected Hong Kongers’ political and civil rights and defended traditional freedoms. Beijing’s announcement that the Communist Party is the ultimate arbiter of Hong Kong law is the end of the “One Country/Two Systems” framework and marks the beginning of the political subjugation of the people there.

The Communist clampdown in Hong Kong is proof that Taiwan cannot reunify with mainland China under Beijing’s terms without sacrificing its democracy and its freedom. Taiwan’s democratic institutions have been tested, but they successfully withstood the challenge. Hong Kongers can only wish they had elections like Taiwan.



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