Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Successful plebicites demand a lot of work

By Chang Tse-chou 張則周

Thanks to the KMT-PFP alliance's U-turn on the referendum issue, the people of Taiwan are likely to directly exercise their civil rights on major national issues soon.

For years, referendums, an elected legislature and direct presidential elections have been the three major goals of the pro-democracy movement in this country. The previous legislative and direct presidential elections realized the sharing of power between the ruling and opposition camps and the transition of power.

However, due to political parties' exchanges of interests and compromises when amending the Constitution before, and the relatively small size of the DPP inside the Legislative Yuan, it's difficult to further reform the system, or promote legislation and major national policies. This has caused not only internal conflicts but also doubts about whether Taiwan's democracy is stepping backward. Perhaps a referendum is an opportunity to activate people's civil rights, to ease internal conflicts and to launch systematic reforms.

Nevertheless, many people are both happy and worried facing the nation's very first referendum. They are happy because the people can finally express their opinions on major national policies directly. They are worried because most people do not have a "civic consciousness." These people do not know the significance and seriousness of a referendum. Nor do they want to deeply understand the content of a referendum.

If the government hastily launches a referendum, whether the outcome of the referendum will tally with people's interests is hard to predict. Therefore, the government must prepare thoroughly to ensure a successful referendum.

First, a referendum is the people's basic right to express themselves on major issues. When drafting the proposed referendum law (公投法), the government should avoid unnecessary restrictions regarding issues highly related to the majority of people -- except reasonable regulations on the number of signatories of a referendum proposal.

Second, apart from controversial issues such as the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and legislative reform, the Cabinet should propose referendums on other unresolved major issues -- such as the accomplishment of the national "garbage free and safe waste treatment plan" within 10 years, and the implementation of 12-year compulsory education and low tuition for higher education within three years -- in order to demonstrate its long-term vision for running the nation and its determination to reform.

Third, and most importantly, any referendum should be proposed three months before it actually takes place. The government should, in line with its handling of the outbreak of SARS, explain to the public in detail the purpose, significance and content -- as well as budget sources and distribution -- of a referendum. People should have discussion with experts and teachers about referendums in communities and schools. The media should thoroughly cover and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of a case in order to educate the public.

A well-implemented referendum is the most direct and effective way for the public to express their opinions and for the government to carry out its national policies based on such opinions. Viewing the progress of the nation's democracy, the realization of referendums has a significant historical meaning. To ensure that the outcome of a referendum tallies with the public's long-term interests, the government should be extremely careful when drafting the referendum law and preparing for referendums. It should never use costly referendums as a campaign tool.

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