For Washington-based U.S. analysts, Saturday’s Taiwan elections were a threefold victory, for President Tsai Ing-wen and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan as a whole, and the very concept of democracy in Asia.
“There’s this debate, which I always thought was a dishonest debate” about whether democracy as a form of governance is suited to Asian history and culture, Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute, said.
He referenced Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore with a firm hand for three decades until 1990.“
“Lee Kuan Yew once said that we Asians, democracy isn’t right for our culture,” Mitchell said at a Saturday morning function sponsored by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. and two think tanks focused on Taiwan and China studies.
But, he told VOA, the successful conduct of Saturday’s presidential and legislative elections was a testament to the fact that democracy is a universal value that can work just as well in Asia as in other parts of the world.
Mitchell was particularly heartened by the “graceful” concession speech of losing presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) party.
His party, seen as more friendly to China than Tsai’s DPP, took only about 40% of the vote compared to about 60% for the victors. Distrust of China spurred by months of anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong were seen as contributing to the DPP’s margin of victory.
Taiwan’s experience this week, along with South Korea’s successful democratic transition in the 1990s, “put a lie to this notion that Asians aren’t suitable for democracy,” Mitchell said.
Another guest at the Saturday function, longtime Asia watcher Richard Bush, was similarly impressed with Taiwan’s election, noting that democracy imposes unique demands on citizens and politicians alike. “
Not all countries take the risk of allowing their average citizens to select leaders,” he remarked.
For Stanley Kao, Taiwan’s chief representative in Washington, the election marked not so much the end of a long campaign as the beginning of a new set of challenges – and opportunities.
Stressing that Taiwan does not take its ties with Washington for granted, Kao said, “We have lots of business to take care of,” including a potential free trade agreement, increased cooperation on security and more people-to-people exchanges.
He told VOA that his job is made easier because of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which ensures U.S. ties with the island in spite of American recognition of the government in Beijing as Washington’s official counterpart.
Kao described what he envisioned to be his duty and approach in Washington: “Follow the line, get the job done. You don’t want to overdo it, but at the same time, we don’t want to shy away from making requests,” he said. “We stay optimistic, but at the same time realistic.”