Referendums and Their Relationship to Taiwan’s Politics

Written by Chia-hung Tsai.

Image credit: 總統針對110年全國性公民投票發表談話 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

There have been sixteen national referendums since the Referendum Act was in effect in 2004. On December 18, there are four more to be voted on. The No. 17 referendum is about activating the 4th nuclear power plant for commercial operations. On the other hand, the No. 18 referendum concerns whether the government should ban the import of pork that contains ractopamine. Number 19 is about revising the Referendum Act to hold referendums with national elections on the same day if they are to be held within six months. Number 20, on the other hand, refers to moving the receiving terminal for natural gas to preserve the algal reef off the coast of Taoyuan. Hence 17 and 20 are about energy, whereas 18 is about international trade. Finally, 19 is about direct democracy itself. Apart from 19, the other three referendums are related to essential policies. Therefore, the results may influence the upcoming local elections in 2022.

Both the incumbent party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the major opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), are geared up to campaign for “No” and “Yes,” respectively. The DPP believes that the turnout rate will be higher than the threshold, which is one-quarter of the electorate, so mobilising all supporters to vote against all four questions is necessary. The KMT, who initiated the No. 19 referendum, regarded this referendum as a good chance to upend the DPP government. Hence it also supported the other three initiatives, especially the algal reef referendum. It became another focal point between the DPP and KMT partly because the KMT calls for more nuclear energy represented by the No. 17 referendum and less thermal emission related to removing the gas receiving terminal. Ironically, the environmentalists aligned with the DPP and criticised KMT’s pro-business policies. This time the DPP pushes hard for non-renewable hydrocarbon for energy generation, citing the safety concern of nuclear power and increasing demand for electricity. The DPP insists that the receiving terminal under construction can coexist with algal reefs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the DPP is the import of the US pork referendum. However, the KMT argues that the referendum targets every pork product containing ractopamine, which is used to enable animals to grow larger and leaner. This drug is currently legal in the US but banned in Taiwan. Many polls show that most people agree to ban meat containing ractopamine, partly because food safety is a salient issue in Taiwan, especially after the gutter oil incidents in 2014. The DPP seems to frame this referendum as the plebiscite on whether Taiwan would ally with China or US. President Tsai Ing-wen and many government officials have warned that Taiwan will not be able to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, CPTPP) if the referendum is passed, the US will interpret the result as that Taiwan is unwilling to comply with the rule of international trade, and the US can influence other CPTPP members. Since the tensions between US and China are growing in technology, national security, economy, and foreign affairs, the DPP government is also worried that rejection of US pork will hurt the relations between US and Taiwan, which would lead to reliance on China’s market. The KMT denies DPP’s allegations of sabotaging Taiwan’s foreign relations through the meat referendum, arguing that the DPP opposed the import of US pork for the same reason as it was not in power.

There are only a few academics or experts endorsing either side, and there are only five televised presentations by representatives of both sides for each referendum. Other than the televised presentations, citizens may learn the content of the referendum through television news that covers campaign activities. Potential candidates of the next local elections sponsor many banners and posters showing “Yes” or “No,” yet they carry minimal policy information. Instead, it is hard not to notice the pictures of candidates.

It is not easy to place the four questions on any dimension of value or ideal. Party battle may be the best term to encapsulate the multi-question referendum. Logically, the DPP can take advantage of its popularity and withstand the four referendums. According to relevant polls, about 30 per cent of respondents support the DPP, and 20 per cent prefer the KMT. However, the latest polls show that both sides are very close. Why is this the case? Do most people follow the KMT on these four issues? My theory is that people may give credits to the DPP for sovereignty and democracy, but they may expect more on domestic issues. It might be the weakness of a catch-all party because it tends to appeal to different social sectors and lacks a set of consistent principles. In this case, the opposition party or social groups can attack some policies to crack the entire government. Foreign relations may be distant from citizens, but energy, food, and the environment are closer to daily life. The opposition party can drive a wedge between the ruling party and people who care about single issues.

The incumbent party should take this referendum as a chance to confirm if most people agree with those important policies. It is not a shame that some of them are rejected by citizens, which could push the government to think harder and be more responsive even at the cost of time or money. It does not suggest that Taiwan has a perfect democratic system. One peril is that citizens are not fully informed even though they can vote and recall politicians in the election and referendum. From the institution perspective, the period between proposing a referendum and voting should be extended for more deliberation. In addition, information about the referendum should be more accessible. Most importantly, the government should be more attentive to civic education regarding how democracy works and civic duty. Only democracy can cure what goes wrong in democracy in the long run.

Chia-hung Tsai is Research Fellow of Election Study Center (ESC) and Taiwan Institute for Governance and Communication Research (TIGCR), National Chengchi University, Taiwan. His major research fields are public opinion and campaign politics. Dr Tsai holds a PhD degree in political science from the Ohio State University and was a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2012-2013).

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan 2021 Referendum

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