RECENTLY Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo announced that martial law would soon end and that new political parties would be allowed to form. He was lauded by the news media, the United States State Department, Congress, and even many of Taiwan's traditional critics. The most widely heard explanation for his decision is that he wants to leave a favorable legacy. Of course, he has to overcome reactionary opposition among the top leadership to do this.
Regarding his battle with the ``hardheads'' in the ruling party, the Kuomingtang (KMT), to make the move he did, one could certainly make the argument that they are the ones that are changing their minds about the future of the country in their last years or months. Older members of the National Assembly and the Legislative Yuan, and to a lesser extent the KMT, have been passing away at a rate of nearly one a week for some time.
Second, what the President did may also be given a different interpretation. His decision to end martial law and allow the formation of new political parties may not be as significant as it appears.
In the sense that martial law translates into political instability, curfews, and other restrictions on the movement of citizens, along with a special role for the military, martial law has not existed in Taiwan for some time. The Chinese term chieh yen has been mistranslated.
Abolishing martial law will slow down the judicial process, since it has made it possible for the government to handle crimes of violence with much less legal hassle. In fact, for this reason the majority in Taiwan do not favor (according to public-opinion polls) getting rid of martial law.
In this sense, the President may be said to have acted in an undemocratic manner. One would be even more convinced of this, knowing that he was advised to do away with martial law to improve the country's image abroad and remove one of the issues used by the Western media to label Taiwan an authoritarian dictatorship, not for domestic reasons.
Regarding the significance of the decision to allow the formation of new political parties, one should examine the political processes, especially elections, since 1980. For at least six years there has been party competition in elections in Taiwan.
The opposition, formerly called tang wai (meaning ``outside the party'') has had a campaign platform and war chest, and its candidates campaigned for each other. It has been for all intents and purposes (except that it technically remained illegal) a political party.
In fact, some opposition leaders have been unhappy with President Chiang's decision. They do not have a base of support, being basically a protest party. Giving them a legal status will not help. In fact, it may do more harm than good, since it will deprive them of an important cause - namely that they should be entitled to legal status. That is not to say, however, that the opposition will not continue to grow, or register election gains, as they did this past weekend when they won 12 of 73 seats in Taiwan's lawmaking council, as well as 11 out of 84 seats in the National Assembly.
President Chiang in the early 1970s ordered the KMT to recruit Taiwanese. It did - at a higher rate than their percentage of the population. The party has run 90 percent Taiwanese candidates in recent elections.
Mr. Chiang also moved against corruption and bureaucracy in government at the same time. He even jailed some of his friends and relatives for corrupt practices. In so doing he made government responsive to citizen demand.
He allowed the opposition to form and told his party that competition made for better government.
He forced the KMT to become more democratic and to work harder to win the support and respect of the population.
He has all but eliminated complaints that the military or some of his relatives may play a role in his succession. Few question that his vice-president, incidentally a highly respected Taiwanese, will succeed him, and that the process will be smooth and democratic (something that happens infrequently in developing countries).
President Chiang deserves credit for stable, democratic-style political development in Taiwan over a period of two decades or more.
Getting rid of martial law and allowing new parties legal status, relatively speaking, are not very significant.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman distinguished professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.