Taiwan’s Referendums Defeated: A Win for Democracy, International space, and the Environment

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

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 Saturday, 18 December 2021, the Taiwanese people went to the polls to vote on four referendums supported by the opposition KMT and opposed by the ruling DPP of President Tsai Ing-wen. The result was a sound defeat of all four proposals and a significant win for the policies of President Tsai. Below is an analysis of what happened.

An overload of referendums

It is ironic that the defeat of a referendum is to be applauded. Traditionally, referendums represent people’s power and direct democracy. That was also the reason why the DPP government in 2017 supported a change in the Referendum Law, which lowered the threshold for introducing and holding a referendum.

However, in the November 2018 local elections, a total of ten referendums flooded the ballot, ranging from phasing out coal plants for energy generation, to same-sex marriage, imports of agricultural products from Fukushima, the name to be used in the 2020 Olympics (“Taiwan” vs “Chinese Taipei”), and repeal of the Act ending the use of nuclear energy by 2025.

This overload of referendums created something of a chaotic situation, making it more difficult for President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to move forward with a number of her policies. Consequently, in July 2019, the Legislative Yuan amended the referendum law. They stipulated those referendums would be voted on separately from elections, thus not coinciding with the four-year cycle of presidential and legislative national elections or the off-year local nine-in-one elections for mayors, county magistrates and local offices.

Playing politics with referendums

Fast forward to the present: Several referendums were in the works over the past year. Two of them were introduced by the KMT party itself. One on restoring a ban on importing pork products with ractopamine from the US and one requiring that referendums be held together with national elections.

The other two, one on restarting the Nuclear Four Power Plant, and one on the relocation of the LNG Terminal away from the algal reef, were initiated by outside pro-nuclear energy and environmental groups, respectively, but in October 2021 became a tug-of-war between the KMT and DPP, when KMT Chairman Eric Chu declared that the passage of all four referendums would constitute a “vote of no confidence” in the Tsai Ing-wen Administration.

So, over the past months, the Kuomintang worked hard to gain support for all four referendums, and at some point, polls indicated that at least a couple of them had a good chance to pass. As the 2017 change to the Referendum Law had made it easier to introduce a referendum as it lowered the threshold for the initial round from 0.1% of the electorate to 0.01%, and for the second round from 5% to 1.5%, the proposals sailed through with relative ease, and the Central Election Commission decided on the date of 18 December 2021 for a vote.

The runup was quite contentious, with both sides holding major rallies to make their point to the voting public. The Kuomintang did its utmost to gain support for the proposals, while the ruling DPP party rallied its supporters to come out and vote against the proposals. In the end, the turnout was 41.09% — highly respectable for a vote that does not coincide with an election.

According to Taiwan’s referendum law, any proposals needed to have at least 25% of the eligible electorate (=4.95 mln) voting “yes” AND more yes than no votes to pass. None of the proposals received enough “yes” votes (most were around 3.7 – 3.9 mln. votes), and in all four cases, there were more “no” votes than “yes” votes (most no votes were around 4.1-4.2 mln.)

Some background on each referendum

Below, we give a bit of background on each proposal and describe how they are essential for and in the larger picture. Vote outcome numbers are based on the initial results released by Taiwan’s Central Election Commission on 18 December 2021.

1: “Do you agree that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be unsealed and operated commercially to generate electricity?” Yes: 3,804,755 / No: 4,262,451 (47.16 percent / 52.84 percent; turnout: 41.09 percent)

The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Lungmen (formerly known as Gungliao), just to the NE of Taipei, represents a long-running feud between the Kuomintang and the DPP. The Kuomintang has long supported nuclear power, and construction of the plant was started in 1999, with a completion date target of 2004.

The now-ruling DPP has traditionally been a proponent of renewable energy, and sided with opponents of the nuclear plant, who emphasized the dangers of building such a plant right on a seismic fault zone, the fact that it was close to the capital city of Taipei, only 40 km away, and of course the unresolved issue on what to do with the nuclear waste.

From 1999 until 2011, construction of the plant proceeded in leaps and bounds and was beset by serious cost overruns. But the matter came to a head after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan: the Fukushima plant was of a similar design. It was also located right next to the Pacific Ocean, prompting opponents to argue that the Lungmen plant could befall a similar fate, with disastrous consequences for nearby Taipei.

In 2014, after many street protests, much wrangling and back-and-forth referendums, the Kuomintang administration of President Ma Ing-jeou decided to mothball the almost finished plant and wait for a more favourable political environment. However, that moment never came, as in 2016, President Tsai was elected on a platform of ending nuclear power altogether by 2025 and intensifying the push for renewable energy.

However, during the past two years, the effects of global warming prompted a drought (less water in the reservoirs and thus less hydropower) and major brownouts in Taiwan, increasing the concern about energy shortages. As a result, the Kuomintang perceived a chance to restart the Nuclear Four Plant and jumped in to support the referendum initiated by a pro-nuclear group at National Tsinghua University.

The rejection of this referendum thus represents a vote of confidence in the Tsai Administration’s push for renewable energy and a rejection of nuclear power in Taiwan’s future.

2: “Do you agree that the government should prohibit imports of pork, offal, or other related products that contain the β-agonist, ractopamine?” Yes: 3,936,554 / No: 4,131,203 (48.79 percent / 51,21 percent; turnout: 41.09 percent)

The second referendum also represents a long-running disagreement between the Kuomintang and the DPP but has seen interesting shifts in positions of both parties. In October 2009, the Kuomintang administration of President Ma Ying-jeou announced that it had agreed with the US government to lift all restrictions on pork and beef imports containing the additive ractopamine.

The DPP, which was in the opposition at the time, strongly opposed the lifting, based on two arguments: 1) the total lack of any consultative procedure (not even the Foreign Ministry or Ministry of Agriculture were aware of the agreement, let alone the Legislative Yuan), and 2) the inherent dangers to public health. Over the previous years, Taiwan had been hit with a number of food health scandals, making it an extremely sensitive issue to the general public.

As time went on, the United States increasingly made the lifting of beef and pork restrictions a prerequisite for any progress to enhancing economic ties with Taiwan, including the start of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement. The powerful US beef and pork lobby was important in this respect, which influenced key people like Senator Grassley of Iowa.

Thus, in August 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen decided to try to break the logjam, and announced that after consultations with the Legislative Yuan, her government would lift the ban on beef and pork but tightly control the levels of ractopamine according to scientific standards. It was hoped that the move would prompt the US government to announce the start of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, but the USTR under President Trump remained mum, while the Biden administration has yet to move on the issue.

The Taiwan government is hopeful that with the threat of a newly imposed ban out of the way due to the rejection of the referendum, the US will now move towards a formal start of trade negotiations.

3: “Do you agree that a referendum should be held concurrently with a national election if it complies with the Referendum Act and if the election is scheduled to take place within six months of the referendum being approved?” Yes: 3,951,882 / No: 4,120,038 (48.96 percent / 51.04 percent; turnout: 41.08 percent)

This referendum was designed to roll back the 2019 amendment of the Referendum Act, which decided to schedule referendum votes separately from national and local elections. Holding them together would have made it easier to get the vote out and get controversial referendums passed.

Rejection of this referendum means that the referendum votes will continue to be held separately, and that voters will have to consider the issues on their own merits.

4: “Do you agree that CPC Corp.’s planned site for Taiwan’s third liquefied natural gas terminal should be relocated from an algal reef off the coast of Datan, Taoyuan, and its adjacent waters?” Yes: 3,901,171 / No: 4,163,464 (48.37 percent / 51.63 percent; turnout: 41.09 percent)

To reduce its CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants (presently still around 45%), it is essential for Taiwan to significantly increase its power generation by highly efficient combined-cycle gas turbines (CCGT). And for this, an adequate supply of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is necessary. Looking at Taiwan’s coastline, the Tsai Ing-wen government actually endorsed a proposal initiated earlier by the previous Ma Ying-jeou government to build the terminal at Datan, in Taoyuan County, right next to the major Datan power plant, minimizing the need for gas transmission pipelines.

But the Kuomintang – which had never cared much for environmental protection – suddenly “discovered” that off Datan there was an old algal reef and turned around and started to oppose the terminal. The DPP government actually modified the plans for the terminal earlier in 2021 to minimize damage to the reef, but the Kuomintang insisted and continued to oppose the terminal.

Rejection of the referendum will enable the terminal to be built and ensure that Taiwan can move towards a more environmentally friendly future in terms of its energy production, with natural gas accounting for around 50% of the energy supply by 2025.

A win for democracy, international space, and the environment

At a short news conference on the evening of 18 December 2021, President Tsai Ing-wen concluded that the day’s events had shown that Taiwan’s democracy worked and that the Taiwanese people had made a choice for international participation, for energy transformation, and for the environment, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.

She said that voters had shown they were eager for Taiwan to join the global community, referencing the defeat of the proposal to ban the import of US pork products. She argued that a win for the initiative would have made it more difficult for Taiwan to join regional trade blocs such as CPTPP and conclude bilateral trade agreements with the US and other countries.

She also stated that the public wanted a stable, reliable, and safe supply of energy, with the building of an LNG terminal at Datan and an end to attempts restarting the fourth nuclear plant. She emphasized that the result of the vote showed people valued both economic development and environmental protection.

And finally, she argued that the defeat of the proposal to combine referendums with elections was a vote for transparency and rational discussion of government policies and a win for democracy.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

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

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