Mr. Democracy or Machiavellian of Power Struggles

By Yang Tai-shuenn

United Daily News, August 2, 2020


The passing of late former President Lee Teng-hui triggered a litany of articles on his life and achievements in the media, especially profusely acclaiming his contribution to Taiwan’s democracy, and even dubbing him "Mr. Democracy" in memory of him for leading Taiwan’s transformation to democracy.


However, from the day Lee took office as the president to his death at nearly a hundred years old, the Legislative Yuan as a showcase for democracy has degraded into a bear pit of fights and scuffles. It begs the question of what kind of democracy "Mr. Democracy" has shaped for Taiwan. Or perhaps democracy is just a convenient veil and tool that Lee used to strike at his rivals during the power struggles?


It is undeniable that Lee  has indeed contributed to expanding citizen participation. For example, in 1991, he led the National Assembly to make amendments to the constitution, allowing citizens of Taiwan to elect public representatives of the Central Government; the second constitutional amendment in 1992 shortened the term of the president to four years and introduced direct elections of the heads of province and cities; in 1994, the third constitutional amendment provided for direct election of the president and vice president by citizens. For this reason, after 1996, Taiwan was rated as a "completely free" country by the "Freedom House", an international democracy monitoring organization.


However, citizens electing political leaders through regular elections is only one of the indicators to measure the maturity of a democracy. The earliest model of human democracy is the direct democracy of Athens. At that time, citizens enjoyed complete direct participation in politics. However, "democracy" became synonymous with mob politics two thousand years after the fall of Athens and was regarded as the worst type of government.


It was not until the mid-19th century, the successful constitutional government of the United States gradually became a term with a positive image today.  Though the Athenians could freely elect their leaders and through the majority to determine the law, they had no tools to check the tyranny of the majority. The Athenians could only join factions to confront and balance each other for their own protection. In the end, they were negligent in guarding against the rise of northern powers due to infighting of factions. The lessons of history are quite worthy of reference for the people.


Therefore, when examining the operation of democratic countries, modern political scholars are not only concerned about whether decision-makers are elected by public elections, but also whether there is an effective mechanism that can prevent the abuse of power by the majority. Opening up civic participation without corresponding mechanism of checks and balances will only lead the country to an unstable future, and it is not to be rated as a consolidated democracy.


Although the Constitution brought to Taiwan by the Kuomintang may be less than perfect, the framers did not neglect the necessary design of checks and balances. Regrettably, while gradually opening up civic participation, Lee also wittingly or unwittingly weakened the mechanism of checks and balances, resulting in a situation where there is no parity of authority and responsibility in today's leadership.


For example, President Lee presided over a series of six constitutional amendments, respectively expanding the president’s emergency command power, crippling the Control Yuan, which represents indirect public opinion, by revoking its consent power over the assignment of high offices of the Judicial Yuan and Examination Yuan, withdrawing the Premier’s right to countersign the presidential candidate nomination, removing the right of countersignature of the Legislative Yuan on the appointment or dismissal of the premier, effectively abolishing the Taiwan Provincial Government, which was the local fortress that could check and balance the central government, effectively abolished the National Assembly to excuse the president from annual policy interpellations. Most importantly, even the Constitution, which is regarded as the most powerful checks and balances on those in power, has lost its solemnity and credibility due to excessive overhauls.


As the original constitution was not flawless, it was certainly subject to further deliberation and appropriate revision. However, reviewing President Lee’s overall record of constitutional revisions, we can only see the gradual weakening of the checks and balances, and no substitutive counterbalance mechanism ever introduced.


If the expression of public opinion and the checks and balances of power are two legs for the advancement of democracy, how can Taiwan, where the groundswell of public opinion goes without the checks and balances of the ruling power, be able to move stably towards a democratic future with only one leg? In the previous constitutional amendments under various high-sounding democratic pretexts, many power struggle calculations were always revealed, which perhaps reflected President Lee’s private political stratagem. Therefore, to conclude Lee’s life with the laudatory “Mr. Democracy” is far less able to reflect the historical facts than “Machiavellian of Power Struggles.”



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