December Referendum and its Implications to Party Politics in Taiwan 

Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.

Image credit: 12.18 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

On December 18th, the Taiwanese people voted for four national referendum questions. The vote was initially scheduled on August 28th but was postponed due to the pandemic prevention policy. The four questions were as follows:

1. to ask voters if to reopen the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant;

2. to stop the US imported pork containing ractopamine;

3. to remove the “The Third Receiver” LNG Terminal to protect the algal reef,

4. to settle whether or not referendums are to be held together with the main national elections to save public spending.

There are 19.88 million eligible voters. There must be at least 25% of them showing up in the voting booth, and the majority of them vote yes to pass the referendum. In spirit, the referendum should target the entangling issues. But usually, the opposition’s purpose is only to shame the incumbent government and complicate the issue.

By law, the administration and the Legislative Yuan should take the necessary disposition to realize the content of the passed referendum proposal. But the government usually could manoeuvre to honour the referendum result in its own preferred way. There have been 16 national referendums in Taiwan’s history, and very few of them provided significant changes in policies and laws. In other words, the referendum in Taiwan is not a tool of direct democracy to assist and guide the government. Nevertheless, the referendum paved the way for political change. I shall focus on the content of these four questions and their implications on party politics.  

Implication one, all four questions showed inconsistency problems in both the ruling party and the opposition. Furthermore, the KMT initiated a Referendum Day Question to make it easier to challenge the Administration. Other opposition parties also answered yes to this question due to the same reason. However, the KMT was the one who opposed this idea back in 2004. The DPP is no better in this inconsistency issue because they were the first to promote same-day voting to enhance turnout. A similar inconsistency issue applied to all other questions.

Moreover, the KMT allowed the US to import beef containing ractopamine, and the DPP firmly opposed any American meat imports. The proposal of the Guantang LNG Terminal was passed under the KMT administration in 2015, and now the KMT wants to take it away. The DPP has always supported environmental policies but now insisted on building more and more fossil fuel-based power plants. Taiwan is already one of the worst countries in the carbon omission record (only ahead of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kazakhstan). Moreover, major political parties are arguing whether to reopen the 20-years-old nuclear power plant. Overall, these inconsistencies showed that political parties have given up their ideological core and are adapting to fast-changing politics.  

Implication two, in search of the new ideology to consolidate its supporters, political parties inevitably become inconsistent and more inclusive to different constituents. More possibilities of recruitment and regrouping will happen soon. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has shifted from grassroots anti-wealth sentiment to a capitalist-friendly policy agenda. The DPP is no longer the “most loyal opposition” but evolving into a responsible leader. Moreover, the DPP chooses to build the new LNG Terminal to provide a steady energy supply to the vibrant Taiwanese economy.

On the other hand, the DPP compromised with US pressure on pork imports because of a national security concern. Furthermore, the DPP’s “Four No’s” campaign demonstrated its firm stance on continuing its agenda of finding choices outside China. As a result, the DPP sided with the US, economically developed its self-sufficient strategy, and culturally established its Taiwanese identity. The young voters agree with the DPP because of its new and popular political ideology. Thus, the DPP must give up other political traditions. On the KMT side, instead of its unpopular One China/Stable Cross-Strait relation policy, this time around, they focused on every other issue they ignored before. As a result, the KMT changed; they began to ally with environmentalists, embraced more social groups, studied bread and butter issues, and stopped speaking like professors and bureaucrats. In general, after decades of democratization, the DPP is ready to rule the country for more than two terms, and the KMT is finally learning how to be a good opposition party.      

Implication three, this referendum will bring the KMT back to the position ready to challenge the DPP’s status. But more importantly, China as a subject is not on the table this time. Taiwan’s party politics finally said goodbye to its long struggle with the unification/independence issue and moved on to more constructive policy debates. Based on various polls, the two proposals initiated by the KMT, same-day voting and US pork, will gain approval from voters. Because of this, the KMT could easily claim its victory on December 4th. Dealing with this setback, the DPP will re-examine and redefine import rules while blaming the KMT for the worsening Taiwan-US relations.

Furthermore, the DPP will also face another referendum next year and the 2022   magistrate/mayor elections. Hence, Social groups and the KMT will undoubtedly generate new proposals to facilitate political participation. On the other hand, the polls do not show certain predictions of the other two questions. There is a narrow gap between those who are for the reopening of the nuclear power plant and those who are against it. And there is much uncertainty surrounding the LNG Terminal proposal. This revealed important questions for the Taiwanese people and policymakers. This concerned whether saying no to dangerous nuclear power is too far-sighted or whether they should say no to high pollution coal production. Also, saying no to the expensive natural gas/gasoline power plant is understandable, but Taiwan cannot say no to all of them. The Government had a hard time making the decision, and the poll shows, the same difficult decision was experienced by the Taiwanese people. Therefore, again, the referendum is not a helpful tool for policy-making in Taiwan. Still, referendums convey useful narratives about how citizens and political parties interact and reshape politics every time they are used.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, a non-resident fellow of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham in UK, Chairperson of the Department of International Affairs, Graduate Program of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. This article is part of special issue on the U.S.-Taiwan relations.

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

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