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  • Elite Settlements in Taiwan
  • John Higley (bio), Tong-yi Huang (bio), and Tse-min Lin (bio)

Since the late 1980s, the rival political elites that dominate politics in Taiwan have achieved a basic accommodation and established a robust democratic regime through negotiation and compromise. Elections in 1991 and 1992 featured full-scale electoral and party competition for the first time. Newly elected legislators replaced the “millennium parliament” that contained members first elected in 1947, two years before the Kuomintang (KMT) regime moved from mainland China to found the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.

March 1996 witnessed the first freely contested and direct presidential election; incumbent president Lee Teng-hui was reelected with 54 percent of the vote. Freedom House praised that election as one of the year’s five major democratic advances worldwide, and for the first time ranked Taiwan as a “politically free” country. By the standard procedural criteria—free party competition, wide voter participation, and respect for basic civil liberties—Taiwan has gone from authoritarianism to democracy in the 1990s. The March 1996 presidential election is best viewed as marking the end of this shift. 1

We want to address three questions: How did this transition occur? How it is best modeled? Can Taiwan now be considered a consolidated democracy? 2 Like Spain’s during the late 1970s, Taiwan’s transition began from within a “civilianized” authoritarian regime that had undergone significant liberalization. Nonviolent opposition pressures and external influences were prominent in both cases. Both involved basic constitutional changes (in Spain an entirely new constitution, in Taiwan significant constitutional amendments since 1991) that were [End Page 148] immediately followed by a series of free elections. Both occurred in countries with divisive problems of “stateness”—Spain’s multilingual and multinational makeup, Taiwan’s conflict between mainlanders and natives and the overriding question of the country’s political status vis-’a-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Most importantly, both transitions involved intense negotiations between moderate regime elites and opposition elites. In Spain, these talks produced a “pacted transition” of the kind that Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan characterize as “reforma-pactada, ruptura-pactada,” in which reforms negotiated by regime and opposition moderates rupture an authoritarian regime and replace it with democratic structures. 3 Whether this model captures the essence of Taiwan’s transition is not trivial, for the reforma-pactada, ruptura-pactada model seems to hold the best prospects for democratic consolidation.

We want to focus on two important but insufficiently studied developments among Taiwan elites: the National Affairs Conference (NAC) of June and July 1990, and the National Development Con-ference (NDC) of December 1996. Both were extraconstitutional conclaves called together by President Lee to settle major disputes. The attendees were leaders from across Taiwan’s political, economic, and intellectual spectrums. Before and during the NAC, ruling KMT and opposing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) elites reached substantial agreement on an agenda for political reform. During the months and years that followed, most of the reforms discussed there were enacted, including direct popular election of the president. After the NAC, antireform conservatives in the KMT were either purged or persuaded to acquiesce, rendering the ruling party conspicuously more tolerant toward the DPP and other opposition groups. Prominent dissidents, some of whom had languished in jail during the 1980s and others of whom had been in exile, were allowed back into politics, and a significant number of them won elective office.

At the NDC six years later, KMT and DPP leaders achieved consensus on the divisive question of Taiwan’s stance toward the PRC and on a variety of constitutional reforms. The National Assembly adopted most of these in July 1997; it will take one more session to complete the process. The scale of the reforms is unprecedented; their significance for Taiwan’s democratic consolidation demands study.

To investigate these matters, we apply the concept of an “elite settlement,” in which the leaders of opposing elite camps suddenly and deliberately reorganize their relations by negotiating compromises on the core disputes separating them. We believe that the NAC of 1990 amounted to an initial but partial elite settlement, and that the NDC was needed to complete it.

The...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 148-163
Launched on MUSE
1998-04-01
Open Access
No
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