At the end of Chen Shui-bian’s two terms as the president of Taiwan, his tenure was widely viewed as a disappointment, if not an outright failure. Today, the Chen years (2000-2008) are remembered mostly for relentless partisan fighting over cross-Strait relations and national identity questions, prolonged political gridlock, and damaging corruption scandals—as an era that challenged, rather than helped consolidate, Taiwan’s young democracy and squandered most of the promise with which it began.
Yet as Taiwan’s Democracy Challenged: The Chen Shui-bian Years documents, this conventional narrative obscures a more complex and more positive story. The chapters here cover the diverse array of ways in which democratic practices were deepened during this period, including the depoliticization of the military and intelligence forces, the ascendance of an independent and professional judicial system, a strengthened commitment to constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law, and the creation of greater space for civil society representatives in the policy-making process. Even the conventional wisdom about unprecedented political polarization during this era is misleading: while elite politics became more divided and acrimonious, mass public opinion on cross-Strait relations and national identity was actually converging.
Not all developments were so positive: strong partisans on both sides of the political divide remained only weakly committed to democratic principles, the reporting of news organizations became more sensationalist and partisan, and the Taiwanese state’s exceptional autonomy from sectoral interests and vaunted capacity for long-term planning deteriorated. But on the whole, the authors argue, these years were not squandered. By the end of the Chen Shui-bian era, Taiwan’s democracy was firmly consolidated.