TAIPEI, TAIWAN -- With last year's formation of an opposition political party and last week's lifting of martial law, Taiwan is moving from almost 40 years of one-party, authoritarian rule to something less authoritarian, more unruly and probably more democratic.
While Taiwan seems to be edging toward the same goals as South Korea, progress is very slow in this island of 19.5 million people. But so far at least it is making this transition without the mass demonstrations, violence and political turmoil that recently brought South Korea to near chaos.
"Korean politics is karate politics," said Antonio Chiang, a magazine publisher here who is close to the newly emerging political opposition in Taiwan.
"In Taiwan, it's all shadowboxing and slow motion."
The only place where the transition has become more lively and downright unruly has been in Taiwan's once staid, rubber-stamp legislature. When it opened earlier this year, deputies pushed, shoved and wrestled with each other. When it closed last week, one legislator pounded an elderly opponent's desk top with his shoe.
Opponents of the Nationalist Chinese government, which has ruled here for 38 years, say the South Korean example of public protest in support of greater democracy has encouraged them.
Most analysts caution, however, that because the differences between Taiwan and South Korea are so great, the Korean impact has been limited so far. This country has never experienced the sustained rule by Army generals that South Korea has. Although ruled by generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek until his death in 1975, Taiwan subsequently has been led by his son, who was not a general. The Taiwanese military also has not played the significant role in day-to-day politics that the South Korean military has.
Street demonstrations that took place here in May and June opposing martial law were minor compared with those that shook South Korea.
President Chiang Ching-kuo's action, taken July 14, to end martial law after nearly four decades caused no celebrations. Many ordinary citizens were barely aware that martial law existed in the first place.
If the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, keeps its promises, however, the lifting of martial law will be only the first in a series of steps aimed at liberalizing the political system and broadening the Kuomintang's base of support before ailing President Chiang passes from the scene.
Located only 100 miles from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan developed into an economic mini-power in the 1960s and '70s. Thanks to its exports, this small island has become the fifth largest trading partner of the United States. It has the third largest foreign currency reserves in the world, valued at $62 billion -- only exceeded by those of Japan and West Germany.
But over the years, human rights groups here and abroad have criticized the Nationalist government for its near-monopoly on political power, its imprisonment of political activists and the restrictions that it placed on independent publications and critics of the regime. Even without martial law, the government plans to continue to impose strict rules for an expanding press and for street demonstrations.
Chiang, 77, the eldest son of the late president Chiang Kai-shek, and a small group of advisers who fled the mainland following the Nationalists' defeat by the Communists in 1949, still hold near total political power.
Native Taiwanese constitute about 85 percent of the island's population. They dominate the economy and have gained a large number of positions in the government and ruling party, but their political power still is limited.
Taiwan continues to declare itself the government of all China, and the great majority of seats in the three national legislative bodies are held by lifetime members who were elected from constituencies on the "We don't have a tradition of democracy, it . . . has to be learned step by step."
-- Huang Chu-wen
mainland in 1947. These old men have not seen their home provinces in nearly 40 years.
The Kuomintang has never permitted general elections to the main parliamentary body, the 318-member Yuan. But by-elections have allowed a limited number of younger deputies to gain entry into what some Taiwanese call this "old men's club."
The problem for the Kuomintang is how to retire the old men and bring in new legislators without sacrificing the image of a parliament that is supposed to represent all of China.
"Reform of the legislature will be much more difficult than lifting martial law," said Lu Ya-li, a leading political scientist here.
Only 13 legislators belong to the Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition group that was formed last fall. Most of its members are native Taiwanese. Together with a number of relatively young and liberal-minded Kuomintang representatives, this small band of opposition deputies has turned the legislature into a lively debating forum.
In December, although its status was technically illegal at the time, the Democratic Progressive Party gained about 25 percent of the vote in an election for a limited number of legislative seats. But the new opposition party has since had difficulty attracting either new members or money to keep it going.
According to Kang Ning-hsiang, a Democratic Progressive Party leader and member of the legislature, the 11-month-old opposition group is nearly broke.
He said the party has only about 2,500 members. The ruling Kuomintang has a membership of more than 2.5 million.
"People are afraid to join a new party," Kang said.
Another problem for the party is that it has no clear leader. Its members appear to be divided over the party's advocacy of "self-determination" for Taiwan. For some, self-determination means simply gaining political power. But for others, it could mean declaring Taiwan to be an independent nation, a move that would provoke the Communists on the mainland and the ruling Kuomintang.
Opposition party leader Kang acknowledged another problem. President Chiang already has moved slowly, but steadily, to reform the political system, thus "stealing cards" from the new party.
One of the opposition's key demands was that the Kuomintang lift martial law, and Chiang's announcement last October that he would do so diminished the impact that South Korea's turn toward democracy might have had here.
"We don't have a tradition of democracy, and it's something that has to be learned step by step," said Huang Chu-wen, 40, a liberal Kuomintang legislator.
Opposition politicians have not yet learned how to unite and focus their efforts, according to publisher Antonio Chiang. Western analysts say that, as in South Korea, the opposition party in Taiwan might alienate an increasingly prosperous middle class if it fails to address practical issues, such as crime, taxes and traffic problems.