The Democratization of Taiwan
Dan Slater and Joseph Wong view Taiwan as the paradigmatic example where an authoritarian party embraced democratization due to its strength rather than its weakness. Other examples in Asia include Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. It’s also possible to identify other examples from around the world. One notable example is Ghana where Jerry Rawlings transitioned from an unelected dictator to a freely elected President. Authoritarian successor parties exist in most democracies. However, many authoritarians democratize from a position of weakness. Slater and Wong argue it’s also possible for authoritarian regimes to democratize from a position of strength and Taiwan is among the best examples.
The Kuomintang (KMT) ruled mainland China from 1928 until 1949. After the Chinese Revolution it governed the island of Taiwan as a dictatorship for another forty years. During that time it delivered strong economic growth and an impressive record of achievements. After Taiwan democratized in the 1990s, the KMT continued to win elections. Dan Slater and Joseph Wong write, “The KMT chose to concede democracy not because of any imminent threat to its hold on political power but precisely because there was no real threat to the party’s political dominance, even after full-blown democratization.”
Certainly, the KMT did not win every election. An opposition party did form known as the DPP. Moreover, the DPP has performed well and has won the past two presidential elections. However, the KMT remains a viable political party thirty years after Taiwan’s first free and fair elections. At the same time, the KMT did not have to democratize. It might have held onto power. But change was already on the horizon. It was bound to lose its popularity if they held on for too much longer. Slater and Wong call this the “bittersweet” spot. We discuss this concept more tomorrow.