Tue, Jul 01, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Referendums need clear definitions

By Ku Er-teh 顧爾德

The referendum issue has increased tensions between the ruling and opposition camps and has made cross-strait relations tense as well. Even the US has stepped in to apply pressure.

Whether we speak of plebiscites on major issues affecting the nation's sovereignty or territory, or of referendums for amending the Constitution, or directly consulting the public on policy issues -- in either case we are affirming that ultimately sovereignty lies in the hands of the public.

A referendum is the public's ultimate weapon. It can express the general will of the public and it also serves as a weapon for the public to use against the political elite. If there is incompetence or corruption among the political elite, or if they don't decide on policies that are beneficial to the people, or if they make decisions that run counter to the people's interests, then the public can express its will through a referendum and exercise political power.

If a referendum is held on a question of domestic policy, it might not involve international or external factors, but referendums related to sovereign territory and foreign policy would do so.

For this reason, many people fear that a referendum on joining the World Health Organization will lead to even greater pressure from China and the US. This kind of threat or warning is often directed at the political elite. This also reveals a bizarre phenomenon -- referendums are first and foremost an expression of the public will and should not be manipulated by the political elite.

But the setting of the agenda is frequently done by the political elite. This is why there are always considerations of the political elite's own interests involved in referendum issues.

The public usually plays the role of a receptor of information and opinion. Members of the political elite advocating different proposals attempt to lobby the public, thereby forcing the public to make a choice among a small number of elite candidates. A referendum is designed to help the public break free of this passive role and allow citizens to make their own choice. To achieve this, it is necessary to have a population of citizens who think clearly and carefully.

Every citizen may not have the specialized knowledge and skills of the elite, but a civil society believes that citizens can cultivate the skills to judge between suggestions from the elite as well as participate in political discussions. This ability to think clearly and carefully requires that society create a public forum for objective discussions of opinion. Only then will citizens develop a policymaking ability.

Whether or not a given issue is put to a referendum, the political elite should always consult with the general public about it. Why carry out a referendum? What repercussions might there be? These questions should be the focus of discussion in public forums between members of the political elite and among the public. They should not be answered by the political elite alone in a provocative or threatening way.

Referendums can be a way of training citizens to think clearly and carefully. Whether or not this can be accomplished, the political elite must respect the will of the people.

The weapon of referendums should be in the hands of the people and should not be a tool that political figures can use at their discretion.

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