Legislative Election in Taiwan May Pose Problems for United States and China

By Clough, Ralph N. | Asia - Pacific Issues, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Legislative Election in Taiwan May Pose Problems for United States and China


Clough, Ralph N., Asia - Pacific Issues


THE LEGISLATIVE YUAN election in Taiwan on December 19 will be a crucial turning point in the island's domestic politics, with important implications for mainland China and the United States. For the first time all members will be elected from Taiwan. The aging holdovers chosen in 1947 in elections held throughout China constituted a mainlander majority in the legislature until they were all forced to retire by December 1991. The great majority of new legislators will be native Taiwanese. They will be much younger and more energetic than the retiring mainlanders, most of whom were in their seventies, eighties or nineties. The new legislature will be more assertive in its relationship with the executive branch and will increase pressure on the executive to win a more dignified status for Taiwan in the international community.

A more democratic Taiwan with a more powerful legislature will complicate U.S. management of its relations with the island. American policymakers will have to pay more attention than in the past to the views of legislators and to trends in public opinion in Taiwan, which is the fifth largest trading partner of the United States. If popular support for declaring Taiwan an independent republic should increase and the People's Republic of China (PRC) holds firmly to its determination to prevent the island's permanent secession, by force if necessary, the United States would be confronted with difficult decisions. Leaders in the two major political parties in Taiwan will seek to enlist Washington's support in their cause.

The Background

The December 19 election is the culmination of a process of political change from an authoritarian to a democratic system that began in the 1950s. For 30 years the process moved slowly, obscured by the attention given to the startling pace of Taiwan's economic growth. Nevertheless, behind the screen of strong-man, one-party authoritarian government headed by Chiang Kai-shek and then by his son Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwanese politicians in laige numbers were joining the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), gaining experience in local elections and working their way up the party hierarchy. Concurrently, the social changes set in motion by economic development prepared the stage for democratization: urbanization, rising education levels, an expanding middle class, the emergence of entrepreneurs able and willing to support candidates for office, growing transportation and communication facilities, and an explosion of contacts with the outside world.

In 1986, President Chiang Ching-kuo recognized the need to respond to the growing pressures for fundamental changes in the political system. He announced decisions to lift martial law, which had been in effect since 1949, to allow the organization of opposition parties, and to ease restrictions on publications. Other political reforms followed in rapid succession, continued by President Lee Teng-hui, a native Taiwanese, who came to power when Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988. Lee ended the "period of rebellion suppression" in effect since 1948, which had suspended many provisions of the constitution and had given the president almost unlimited powers. The legislature abolished or liberalized laws against subversion. Taiwan's highest judicial body ordered the retirement by December 1991 of all members of the National Assembly (which elects the president and amends the constitution), the Legislative Yuan (which makes the laws) and the Control Yuan (which investigates accusations of official wrongdoing) elected on the mainland in 1947 and 1948. In 1986, 1989 and 1991 opposition parties entered candidates in national elections for the first time and one of these parties, the Democratic Progressive Pärty (DPP), became the chief rival of the KMT, winning from 18 to 31 percent of the popular vote.

The Latest Election

The legislature elected this month will be a streamlined body, reduced by a constitutional amendment adopted early this year from the 773 seats prescribed by the 1946 constitution to 161. …

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