Cleaning the Straits

South Korea isn't the only democratic success story in Asia these days. The competition isn't just coming from Japan; it's Taiwan, rarely recognized as an independent state, that's making some of the best progress. Since holding its first free presidential elections in 1996, Taiwan has most often been associated with the fistfights that occasionally break out in its fractious legislature. But under the surface, the island has been quietly fortifying its political system. Recent surveys by the research group Asian Barometer rank Taiwan third, after Japan and South Korea, on support for liberal democratic values such as civilian rule and an independent judiciary. And its citizens support free speech more strongly than those of any other surveyed country.

Recent reforms virtually guarantee that the country's politics will grow even more pluralistic. In 2003, citizens were granted the power of referendum. In 2005, they were given final say via plebiscite over constitutional amendments, and the same round of reform will create single-member legislative districts rather than the current multi-member ones. That move is expected to create a more stable two-party system; the first election under the new rules is in December.

Perhaps most remarkable is the way the judiciary has become a check on the other powers. Last fall, President Chen Shui-bian's wife was charged with corruption, as was a former opposition leader. Courts have also convicted Chen's son-in-law and one of his top aides. Such high-level cases were once impossible to imagine. Despite grumblings, the country's formerly rotten political class has bowed to the rule of law. The high-profile charges notwithstanding, last year Taiwan ranked 34th out of 163 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index—second only to Japan among Asia's free countries.

That's not to say the country isn't still suffering from growing pains. The government is an awkward hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system—a problem it hopes to fix with further constitutional revisions. Gridlock is the legislature's default setting. And the island is bitterly split over its identity (is it Chinese or Taiwanese?), China policy, and how to deal with the vestiges of almost 40 years of authoritarian rule—key questions its young democracy has been unable to answer. Case in point: the recent controversy over the government's moves to pull down—and, in one case, dismember—the remaining statues of Chiang Kai-shek, who established the Kuomintang's autocratic rule over Taiwan after fleeing the mainland in 1949.

Democratic consolidation doesn't make for as good TV as public brawling, of course. Thanks in part to the island's freewheeling media, Taiwan's legislative meltdowns still dominate the limelight. But while political life here may look chaotic, in the ways that matter it's growing more stable all the time.

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