Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

The ROC President is the single most visible political actor in Taiwan and much of the literature charting Taiwan’s progress towards democracy and democratic consolidation has focused on respective presidencies. Although Chiang Kai-shek cannot take any credit for the political liberalization that occurred after his death, he was the dominant political figure in Taiwan for almost three decades until 1975 (although his power was derived from heading the KMT and military rather than the ROC Presidency). The definitive study of Chiang’s life is Taylor (2011). Much of the book concentrates on the period of Chiang’s rule over China and the civil war, but there is some excellent coverage of Chiang’s relationship with the US after the relocation to Taiwan, including the period up to the normalization of relations between the PRC and US (and the implications for Chiang and Taiwan). Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, had a greater role to play in the transition towards democratization, although the extent of his contribution and willingness to liberalize is still much debated. The complexities and ambiguities of Chiang Jr’s political life are expertly covered in Taylor (2009). If the seeds of liberalization were sown during Chiang’s tenure, they bloomed under President Lee Teng-hui, which is reflected in one of his nicknames ‘Mr Democracy’. But Lee’s tenure was not completely straightforward. Chao et al (2002) provides a collection of sophisticated analyses bringing out the differences between Lee’s unelected tenure when he was instrumental in pushing institutional and constitutional reform alongside continued economic growth and the preservation of the ROC, and the period after 1996, when decision-making appeared more arbitrary, corruption flourished and relations with China deteriorated as his discourse moved away from ‘one China’ to his ‘two states theory’. Lee and Wang (2003) sets Lee’s presidency within the context of battles within the ruling KMT, and demonstrates that the move toward democratization in the 1990s was not inevitable.Alagappa (2003) provides an assessment the Lee era and immediate reactions to the 2000 presidential election.

When the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian surprisingly won the presidency in 2000, as a result of a split in the KMT, some observers argued that democracy had been consolidated in Taiwan. But under the conditions of divided government, KMT obstructionism and the DPP’s lack of governance capacity created intractable problems for Chen’s reform agenda, as the essays in Goldstein and Chang (2008) show. With their focus on partisan battles, divided government and polarizing ethnic politics Copper (2009) and Chu (2005) emblematic of one strain of scholarship that suggests that democracy was not in fact consolidated by Chen’s victory in 2000 and that the Chen era was a wasted opportunity in which reforms stagnated. Much scholarship on the Chen era is divided by finding fault in KMT obstructionism or Chen’s intransigence; these articles lean towards the latter in seeking an explanation for a difficult period in Taiwan’s democracy. Rigger (2002) on the other hand finds fault in the institutional design that rendered the ROC President relatively weak (particularly under conditions of divided government). Cabestan and DeLisle (2014) gives an overview of the Ma Ying-jeou era from 2008 until his re-election in 2012, with much coverage centred on economic policy and dissecting the means and implications of Ma’s rapprochement with Beijing. It is the most authoritative and comprehensive analysis of developments during Ma’s first administration.

Elections have provided many of the milestones in Taiwan’s journey to democracy, and elections for the highest office have commanded much scholarly attention since the first direct election in 1996. The drama of the campaign in 1996, preceded by the intrusion of Chinese missiles off the coast of Taiwan, and featuring open conflict between conservative and progressive elements in the KMT, is ably captured in Rawnsley (1997). This article also provides an early account of the evolving political communications environment.  Splits in the KMT did not prevent a comfortable victory for Lee Teng-hui in 1996, but the independent candidacy of James Soong in 2000 would allow Chen Shui-bian to sneak home with 39% of the vote. The result represented a milestone in Taiwan’s democratization: the first change of ruling parties. Diamond (2003)provides a compelling account of the behind-the-scenes strategy and machinations that led to President Lee nominating Lien Chan thereby setting off the train reaction that would see Chen into the Presidential Palace. Approaching the surprise result from the opposite side, Niou and Paolini (2003) investigates the behaviour of voters, and provide a precise quantitative assessment of the effects of Lien and Soong splitting the KMT/blue vote.

Seeking to avoid such a split in 2004, Lien and Soong joined forces to try to spoil Chen’s quest for re-election. In a memorably bitter campaign, Chen prevailed in controversial circumstances, after surviving an apparent assassination attempt on election eve. Clark (2004) provides a detailed account of the campaign and the party’s campaign strategies. One of the masterstrokes of the Chen campaign was to use the presidential agenda setting power to tie a defensive referendum to his Taiwan identity project. Kao (2004) provides a clear analysis of Chen’s clever, and clearly instrumental, use of the defensive referendum which helped him frame the campaign on his preferred terms. Taiwan identity was at the heart of this campaign, the parameters and effects of which are well covered in Corcuff (2004) and Bedford & Hwang (2006). Chen’s second term was tainted by corruption and continuing governance problems, which Ma Ying-jeou pledged to turn around. Ma Ying-jeou’s landslide election in 2008 ushered in a new direction in Taiwanese politics, particularly in terms of economic policy and relations with China, and the election is well covered by Muyard (2008). Ma’s first term brought breakthroughs in cross-Strait relations, including signing a limited Free Trade Agreement with China. It also saw economic problems and question of personal effectiveness. As Tsang (2012) recounts, in the end Ma was comfortably re-elected, despite a strong challenge from the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who will run again in 2016.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor at the University of Nottingham. He tweets @jonlsullivan.

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