In addition to the economic stimulus bills, a major controversy in the Legislative Yuan's extraordinary session was the proposed national referendum bill. Referendums are a demonstration of civic power, and the direct exercise and expression of that power can supplement the shortcomings of the legislature. In any given mature democracy, only the substantive contents of referendums can possibly become the focus of controversies.
The right of citizens to vote in referendums shouldn't incite disputes. While Taiwan has left behind the shadow of former authoritarian rule and implemented institutionalized democracy, it is still plagued by disputes over drafting a referendum law. On the surface, both the ruling and opposition camps seem to support the passage of the law, but it is not that simple. Both sides appear to have their own concerns, and no one dare to go all out in support of the law. This is a phenomenon worthy of pondering.
The referendum issue touches the sensitive unification-independence nerve of the opposition and ruling camps. The pan-green camp hopes to demonstrate the mainstream popular will of society through the holding of referendums, while the pan-blue camp fears that referendums will ultimately lead to a duel between unification and independence supporters.
The nativization camp, spearheaded by the DPP, has for years advocated the enactment of a referendum law, while the pan-blue camp limits the scope of its support to the constitutional right of "initiative and referendum." The two sides couldn't be further apart on the issue, creating distrust between them and making it virtually impossible for them to share any common ground.
Surprisingly, after President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) spoke out in support of holding referendums on World Health Organization participation and on halting construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, the blue camp changed its long-held position with respect to referendums, supporting the enactment of a referendum law, and even proposing enactment of the law this month and holding a referendum next month.
It went so far as to support the draft referendum law pitched by DPP Legislator Trong Chai (
The blue camp now adamantly supports the right of citizens to referendums, yet just when the referendum law seemed closer to materialization than ever, Chen chose to reiterate his promise not to declare independence, so long as China does not invade. Moreover, the version of the bill endorsed by the DPP makes referendums on national sovereignty a defensive measure, meaning such a plebiscite would only take place if and when China uses force against Taiwan.
This way, referendums become a means through which important public issues, rather than the future of the nation, are decided. In contrast, the blue camp made a drastic change of position, adopting the stance of "anything goes" when its comes to topics to be voted on by referendums.
Does this mean that the ruling and opposition camps have exchanged their political stance, with the ruling party stepping back on the issue while the opposition party marches forward? The answer is, of course, no. The change is only strategic, rather than a fundamental change of principals. The reason the blue camp dares to adopt the "anything goes" attitude, including the holding of a referendum on independence, is because it knew very well the DPP wouldn't move too aggressively under the threat of an attack from China.