The History and Significance of Referendums in Taiwan

Written by John F. Copper

Image credit: 捷運公投廣告 by ancorena/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

On December 18, 2021, a four-question referendum will be presented to voters in Taiwan. The first question deals with constructing a receiving terminal for natural gas on Taoyuan’s Datan Algae Reef. The second is about importing pork from the United States that may contain a possible dangerous additive. The third concerns the activation of the Lungman Nuclear Power Plant. Finally, the fourth allows, or rejects, referendums being held together with general elections.

However, most observers do not clearly understand the history of referendums and why they are important.

Provisions for holding referendums are in Taiwan’s Constitution written in 1946 in a chapter on the duties of the people and in another chapter entitled “election, recall, initiative, and referendum.” However, implementation had to await a law to operationalize these constitutional provisions.

This became a serious matter leading up to the highly contested and critically important 2004 presidential election. President Chen was behind in the polls and needed an issue. As the referendum broadened Taiwan’s democracy, it favoured Chen and his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and its allied parties advocated political stability and economic growth, not referendums, but relented to writing a referendum law due to public support.

However, since Pan-blue (the KMT and other conservative parties) enjoyed a majority in the legislature, they could decide the law’s wording and content. They cited a provision in the Constitution that the Republic of China’s territory (meaning Taiwan) could not be altered. Moreover, President Chen had pledged something reflecting this in his May 2000 inauguration speech. He gave his “Five No’s,” and one of his stipulations was not to hold a referendum on unification or independence. Thus, this issue was not to be the subject of a referendum. They also made approving a referendum difficult, passage requiring most eligible voters (not actual voters) to say yes.

Two referendums were offered to voters in 2004. One stated that Taiwan should acquire advanced anti-missile defences to counter China, having increased its missiles aimed at Taiwan placed on the other side of the Taiwan Strait if it did not reduce them. The second called for Taiwan to negotiate with China to pursue peace and stability in the area “for the welfare of people on both sides.”

The KMT called for its voters to boycott the referendums. Because of that and the high bar for approval, neither passed.

In 2008, four referendums were put forward—two for the January legislative election and two for the March presidential election. The former called for an accounting of the sources of KMT wealth (presumably illegitimate) and an investigation of corruption in high office in Taiwan (aimed at President Chen). The latter two were KMT and DPP, different versions of Taiwan reapplying to or re-joining various international organizations.

In any event, of six referendums considered before 2018, all were about political issues, none concerned social issues. Politicians proposed all of them. Citizens did not propose any. President Chen advanced two, DPP Chairman Yu Shyi-kun two, and Wang Chien-shien and Vincent Siew together sponsored two. None of these referendums passed, causing some to believe the issue was moot.

In December 2017, with the DPP and its allied parties now in control of both the executive and legislative branches of government owing to the results of the 2016 election, the Referendum Act was seriously amended. The threshold for proposing a referendum was lowered from 0.5 per cent of the electorate to 0.01 per cent. In addition, the vote required for passage was cut to 25 per cent of eligible voters from 50 per cent. Also, the age for voters was lowered from 20 to 18, Constitutional amendment issues no longer apply to referendums, and a national referendum could be held by absentee vote.

Thus, it appeared referendums would play a central role in Taiwan consolidating its democracy.

In fact, voters’ input would be greatly enlarged as referendums were intended to accomplish and had not.

The Central Election Commission received more than 20 proposals to be put on the ballot for November 24, 2018, Nine-in-One (or off-year) election of almost all local officials in Taiwan. Civic organizations put some forward. After a sifting process, ten were approved. Overall, they were urgent and/or controversial issues; many debated in public for some time. The referendum proposals were about the following general topics: environmental, social, and political.

On the positive side, according to advocates, the referendums promised to make Taiwan the “world champion in direct democracy.” Voters would be formulating policies. Referendums supported two sides of the LGTB issue; thus, voters would hopefully resolve a part of this controversial issue.

On the negative side, insofar as proposing and passing a referendum were made easy, some were frivolous. Some gave the voter a voice in deciding an issue over which they had no control. This related to topics such as changing Taiwan’s name in international sports events and some matters that were best resolved by a legislative act or an executive decree, such as banning the importation of seafood caught near the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Another concern, or defect, critics said, was a referendum, as noted, could not be proposed to decide the issue of Taiwan’s legal status. Some critics maintained that if a referendum could not decide this problem, it really had no use. Yet, the United States opposed this kind of referendum, and its view could not be ignored.

In any case, the referendums turned out to be a bust for President Tsai and the DPP.

On the most critical issue, LGBT rights, residents were clearly on the side of not discriminating and giving them certain rights. But a referendum that called for marriage between a man and a woman and another that said there should not be mandatory education about gays in elementary and middle schools had overwhelming support. LGBT organizations blamed President Tsai for not supporting their views strongly enough and not acting quickly, which allowed opposition groups to get organized and play on Taiwan’s residents’ conservative social values.

On the energy issue, voters approved phasing out coal to generate electricity and eventually shuttering nuclear power facilities. But the gradual ending of coal was not as fast as President Tsai and the DPP had recommended. Terminating nuclear power required a good substitute, which was not readily available. Voters, especially the business community, worried about having sufficient electricity.

The December vote on referendums will give the Tsai administration and opportunity to use the procedures it passed in 2017 to its advantage and shine, whereas it didn’t in 2018. The KMT is facing a low point regarding the public’s view of its brand and is desperate to fix this. Both sides see the coming referendums as an opportunity.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on China, Taiwan and U.S. Asia, including the seventh edition of Taiwan: Nation-State or Province?  and Taiwan’s Politics in Action (World Scientific) early this year.

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

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