Taiwan’s vibrant and competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, and protections for civil liberties are generally robust. Ongoing concerns include Chinese efforts to influence policymaking, the media, and Taiwan’s democratic infrastructure; foreign migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation; and disputes over the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.
Key Developments in 2018:
- During the run-up to November local elections, an alleged Chinese disinformation campaign on social media meant to discredit the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), along with funding from Beijing for a number of candidates, raised concerns about the scope of Chinese influence on Taiwanese politics.
- The DPP, struggling with low approval ratings, suffered extensive losses in the elections, leading President Tsai Ing-wen to step down as party chair.
- After the Constitutional Court ruled in 2017 that civil code provisions barring same-sex marriage violated the constitution, voters rejected such unions in a November referendum, throwing the future of the landmark ruling into doubt.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 37 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president, who is directly elected for up to two four-year terms, appoints the premier with the consent of the legislature. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, is made up of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the premier. In practice, the president holds most executive authority.
President Tsai of the DPP was elected in January 2016 with 56 percent of the vote, defeating two opponents. Direct elections for the president, held since 1996, have generally been considered credible.
The November 2018 local elections, in which thousands of offices were contested, including county magistrate and mayoral posts, were shaken up by allegations of extensive Chinese meddling. There was evidence that Beijing used social media platforms to spread anti-DPP propaganda, and as of October, the Ministry of Justice was investigating at least 33 opposition Kuomintang (KMT) candidates who allegedly received campaign funds from China. It was unclear whether Beijing’s efforts affected the electoral outcome. The DPP’s popularity had been waning for economic and policy reasons in the run-up to the elections, and it suffered significant losses, prompting President Tsai to resign as party chair.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The unicameral Legislative Yuan has 113 members elected to four-year terms; 73 are directly elected in single-member constituencies, 34 are elected by proportional representation, and 6 are elected by indigenous voters in two multiseat constituencies. In the last legislative elections in January 2016, the DPP won 68 seats, leaving the KMT with 35, the New Power Party with 5, the People First Party with 3, and the Non-Partisan Solidarity Union and an independent candidate with 1 seat each. The elections were considered free and fair by international observers.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Elections in Taiwan are administered by the Central Election Commission (CEC). The law mandates that no political party may hold more than one-third of the seats on the CEC. Since 2007, instances of vote buying and other electoral irregularities have gradually waned thanks to tighter enforcement of anticorruption laws. In November 2018, the chairperson of the CEC resigned in the wake of criticism over long lines at polling stations and the fact that provisional results were posted on election day as some voters were still waiting to cast their ballots.
In January, the revised Referendum Act came into effect, lowering thresholds to permit citizen-initiated ballot measures and decreasing the voting age for referendums from 20 to 18 years. In October, the CEC announced that it was referring evidence to prosecutors regarding forged signatures on a KMT-led petition for a referendum on slowly reducing the output of thermal power plants. Despite the fact that 182,848 out of 497,243 signatures on the petition were ruled invalid, the CEC approved it, and referendum voters endorsed the proposed policy change in November.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
The multiparty political system features vigorous competition between the two major parties, the DPP and KMT. Smaller parties are also able to function without interference and have played a significant role in both presidential and legislative contests.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
There have been regular democratic transfers of power between rival parties in recent years. In the 2016 general elections, amid widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbent KMT administration, voters handed the opposition DPP a resounding victory. The KMT in turn took advantage of the DPP government’s unpopularity to win a convincing victory in the November 2018 local elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Major business owners with interests in China remain an influential force in Taiwanese politics, largely through their close relationship with the KMT and support for its China-friendly policies. The KMT, which governed Taiwan as an authoritarian, one-party state for decades until democratic reforms took hold in the 1980s and 90s, has typically enjoyed a considerable financial advantage over rivals like the DPP, which has traditionally favored greater independence from China. However, the KMT’s advantage has been whittled away in recent years by DPP government investigations into allegations that the KMT improperly acquired public assets during its rule, which has led to many of its accounts being frozen.
In response to concerns about Chinese meddling in the 2018 local elections, the cabinet in December introduced draft legislation that would ban local media and internet service providers from carrying campaign advertisements funded by foreign sources.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Taiwan’s constitution grants all citizens the right to vote. This guarantee applies regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The 2016 elections increased women’s overall political representation, with female candidates winning the presidency and a record 38 percent of seats in the Legislative Yuan.
Six seats in the Legislative Yuan are reserved for indigenous candidates elected by indigenous voters. An additional two indigenous candidates won seats in 2016 through normal party-list voting. Members of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous tribes make up roughly 2 percent of the population.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Elected officials in Taiwan are free to set and implement policy without undue interference from foreign or other unelected actors, though consideration of China plays a significant role in Taiwanese policymaking.
Escalating Chinese pressure continues to threaten Taiwan’s sovereignty. Three countries severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2018, largely as a result of financial incentives offered by the Chinese government. At the end of the year, Taiwan had diplomatic recognition from just 17 countries. In September, in a bid to curtail Chinese influence, the cabinet approved draft legislation that would restrict unauthorized investment by Chinese companies in Taiwan, clearing the way for a review by the parliament.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Corruption is significantly less pervasive than in the past, but it remains a problem. Political and business interests are closely intertwined, leading to malfeasance in government procurement. The current DPP-led government has moved to reduce these practices, including through a proposed reform of the Government Procurement Act. Corruption cases proceeded against former lawmakers from both major parties in 2018. In September, former KMT legislator Lee Ching-hua was indicted for allegedly embezzling government funds during his time in office. In December, the 2006 corruption conviction of former DPP legislator Kao Jyh-peng was upheld by the Supreme Court; he was sentenced to four years and six months in prison.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The 2005 Freedom of Government Information Law enables public access to information held by government agencies, including financial audit reports and documents about administrative guidance. Civil society groups are typically able to comment on and influence pending policies and legislation. In recent years, the government has announced plans to create innovative digital spaces for civic exchange and public participation in policymaking, but implementation remains in its early stages.
Although the government generally operates with openness, policies and regulations related to business are sometimes changed without properly informing the public or the business community.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 56 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
The news media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies, though many outlets display strong party affiliation in their coverage. Beijing continues to exert influence on Taiwanese media. Key media owners have significant business interests in China or rely on advertising by Chinese companies, leaving them vulnerable to pressure and prone to self-censorship on topics considered sensitive by Beijing. In recent years, Taiwanese regulators have resisted proposed mergers that would have concentrated important media companies in the hands of such owners, and the press has been able to report freely on elections.
The onslaught of disinformation surrounding the 2018 local elections led some top officials to suggest revising the National Security Act to counter “fake news,” raising concerns that any resulting legislation could be misused to silence and punish critical voices in the media.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Educators in Taiwan can generally write and lecture without interference, and past practices—including prosecutions—aimed at restricting academics’ political activism have been rare in recent years.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion is open and free, and there were no reports of the government illegally monitoring online communication in 2018. The government does not restrict internet access.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
The 1988 Assembly and Parade Act enables authorities to prosecute protesters who fail to obtain a permit or follow orders to disperse, but freedom of assembly is largely respected in practice. In August 2018, rights monitors called for an investigation into the alleged use of excessive force by police during two protests against forced evictions in Taipei.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. Nongovernmental organizations typically operate without harassment.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Trade unions are independent, and most workers enjoy freedom of association, though the government strictly regulates the right to strike. Among other barriers, teachers, workers in the defense industry, and government employees are prohibited from striking.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
Taiwan’s judiciary is independent. Court rulings are generally free from political or other undue interference.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
Constitutional protections for due process and defendants’ rights are generally upheld, and police largely respect safeguards against arbitrary detention. Although prosecutors and other law enforcement officials have at times engaged in abusive practices, particularly in prominent and politically charged cases, such violations have been less common in recent years.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Both criminal violence and excessive use of force by police are rare in Taiwan, and attorneys are allowed to monitor interrogations to prevent torture.
After a four-year death penalty moratorium, the government resumed executions in 2010. Condemned inmates, after being sedated, are shot from behind at close range. Family members of inmates awaiting the death penalty are typically not informed about scheduled execution dates. Nearly all death sentences are imposed for murder. In August 2018, an inmate was executed for the first time in two years; he had been convicted of killing his former wife and young daughter.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens before the law, although indigenous people continue to face social and economic discrimination, leading to high unemployment, lower wages, and barriers to education and social services. In 2016, President Tsai offered the government’s first formal apology to indigenous people for centuries of injustice, while launching a commission to investigate historical mistreatment. The 2017 Indigenous Languages Development Act designated the languages spoken by 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes as national languages of Taiwan, and authorized their formal use in legislative and legal affairs.
The constitution guarantees women equal rights, though Taiwanese women continue to face discrimination in employment and compensation. Taiwanese law prohibits discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, and violence against LGBT people is adequately addressed by police.
Taiwanese law does not allow for asylum or refugee status. A long-awaited draft bill to address the problem passed committee review in the legislature in 2016. However, no substantial progress toward passage was reported in 2018.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 14 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Taiwan’s residents enjoy freedom of movement, and Taiwanese authorities have gradually eased restrictions on travel between Taiwan and China in recent years. However, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan has dropped since the DPP government took office in 2016, allegedly due to Chinese government pressure on tour operators.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
Although property rights are generally respected, urban renewal and industrial projects have been criticized for unfairly displacing residents. Housing advocates have called for legal amendments to clarify residency rights, including protections against forced eviction, and the establishment of an appeals system to review alleged violations.
For much of 2018, indigenous protesters camped out in Taipei’s Peace Memorial Park to oppose a 2017 regulation that returned some state-owned land to indigenous people but did not apply to private property; advocates claim the omission denies indigenous groups much of their ancestral territory.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
The Constitutional Court ruled in 2017 that it was unconstitutional to ban same-sex marriage, but opponents of such unions organized a ballot measure on the topic, and referendum voters supported the civil code’s existing ban in November 2018. It was unclear at year’s end how lawmakers and the courts would resolve the conflict between the 2017 ruling and the referendum result.
Citizenship laws discriminate against people from mainland China, as spouses from mainland China married to Taiwanese nationals must wait six years before becoming eligible for citizenship, whereas spouses of other nationalities are only required to wait four years.
Rape and domestic violence remain serious problems. Although the law permits authorities to investigate complaints without victims pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many women from reporting these crimes to the police. Recent reforms have improved protections for accusers and encouraged reporting of rape and sexual assault, which appears to have increased prosecution and conviction rates.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Over 600,000 foreign migrants work in Taiwan, with many employed as domestic workers and fishermen who are not covered by the Labor Standards Act, excluding them from minimum wage, overtime, and paid leave protections. As a result, foreign migrant workers are at substantial risk of exploitation, with widespread accounts of unpaid wages, poor working conditions, physical and sexual abuse, and extortion and fraud by recruitment and brokerage agencies. To address the problem, the legislature passed amendments to the Employment Services Act in November 2018, requiring employment agencies to swiftly report abuses against migrant workers or face severe fines.
Legislation to impose stricter worker protections on fishing companies took effect in 2017. However, labor advocates report poor implementation, citing ongoing mistreatment and abuse of foreign fishermen on Taiwanese vessels. In October 2018, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency fined and suspended the license of a Taiwanese fishing vessel after an investigation uncovered physical abuse, withholding of wages, and long work hours, among other violations.