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Session C5
Authoritarian Legacies, Party System Institutionalization, and the Taiwanese Democratic Miracle
祁凱立 Kharis Templeman
Freeman Spogli, Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, USA

Taiwan is one of the most successful cases of the “Third Wave” of democratization—that is, countries that began to undergo political liberalization during or after the mid-1970s. Although it has hit some bumps along the way, today Taiwan scores at or near the top of most indicators of democracy: free and fair elections, constraints on executive authority, respect for rule of law, protection of human rights, responsiveness and accountability of government, respect for freedom of speech and assembly, and so forth. Unlike in other Third Wave democracies in the region such as Thailand and the Philippines, elections in Taiwan have never been interrupted or suspended, there are no reserved policy domains for unelected officials, and leaders have never been removed through extra-constitutional means. Indeed, the interruption or suspension of the electoral process is all-but-unthinkable in Taiwan today.

What explains Taiwan’s successful democratic consolidation? Much of the existing writing on Taiwan’s democratization points to aspects of its modernization: a well-educated population, developed economy, large middle class, and the rise of a vibrant civil society sector that has advocated for democratic accountability. But an underappreciated part of Taiwan’s consolidation is its well-institutionalized party system. A growing literature in comparative political science suggests that democracies are more likely to survive if they have institutionalized party systems, which provide mechanisms to translate the demands of disparate interest groups and individual citizens into coherent, broadly beneficial public policies, and a way for citizens to hold their governments accountable.   

Compared to other Third Wave democracies, Taiwan’s party system is quite institutionalized. The KMT and DPP, the same two parties that finished 1-2 in the first fully democratic elections in 1992, finished 2-1 in 2016. No other party has ever supplanted either one as the ruling or primary opposition party. Both have hierarchical, centralized party organizations that integrate local branches into a national structure. Both enjoy the firm loyalty of core partisans who make up a significant share of the Taiwanese electorate. Both have staked out coherent, distinct positions on the “China question”—the most fundamental divide in Taiwanese politics. And each remains the primary threat to unseat the other in every election around the island. In contrast to those of other countries in the region that are weakly institutionalized (South Korea), unstable and volatile (Thailand, Indonesia), inchoate (Myanmar), dominant (Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia), or atomized (Philippines), Taiwan’s party system is a model of consistency and stability.

The sources of party system institutionalization in Taiwan can be traced back to two factors: the authoritarian legacy of the martial-law-era KMT regime, and the emergence of the China question as a fundamental, polarizing divide in Taiwanese politics. In particular, the KMT’s ability not only to survive the transition to democracy intact but to win elections and prosper aided the institutionalization of a competitive party system oriented around a single primary cleavage. This, in turn, provided Taiwanese voters with a credible opposition alternative to the ruling party, enhanced the responsiveness of governments to citizen demands, and encouraged greater provision of public goods and development of broad, programmatic policies rather than narrowly targeted, clientelist ones. Thus, the comparative literature on party system institutionalization suggests that Taiwan’s democracy has done so well because of, rather than despite, the legacies of the pre-democratic era.