The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP) feel that the Pinglin referendum has offered a good opportunity to oppose consultative referendums, which by Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have been likened to the Cultural Revolution and called "the source of chaos." But is this really the way things are?
In Western Europe, consultative referendums are the norm. As an example, 17 of the 29 referendums concerning European integration have been consultative. Although Denmark, Norway, Finland, Greece and Italy all have complete systems for holding binding referendums, they have all held consultative referendums without having a legal foundation for doing so. The UK, which has no referendum legislation at all, has held a consultative referendum on the issue of whether or not to remain in the EU. Belgium and Luxemburg "only" have a consultative referendum system. Spain and Sweden have a system allowing both binding and consultative referendums.
Local legislatures in Japan can promulgate their own referendum regulations, but only as long as they are concerned with consultative referendums. In the US, every state but Delaware has a system allowing a referendum to be held on public initiative. Each state, however, often hold consultative referendums.
Why are consultative referendums so common? This varies between countries. In the UK, the idea that places parliament above all else does not allow for binding referendums, which makes consultative referendums necessary.
In Denmark, the constitution specifies that any piece of legislation giving up sovereignty to an international organization must be subjected to a referendum. How-ever, the 27 Feb. 1986 referendum on the Single Market did not fall under this category. As a result, the issue led to strong inter-party opposition. The solution to the stalemate was to hold a consultative referendum.
Although Swedish legislation stipulates that any constitutional amendment must be decided in a referendum, the referendums on whether or not to start driving on the right side of the road in 1955 and whether or not to stop using nuclear power in 1980 had to be consultative in nature.
As a result of 19th Century populism, each state in the US has a complete system for initiative and referendum, while state legislatures and governments often decide to put issues of major importance before the public. Two examples of this are the 1997 and last year's consultative referendums in Oregon asking whether or not to authorize the State Lottery Bond Program to finance public school projects and whether or not to increase the cigarette tax and use the revenue for the health plan and other programs, respectively.
Although the situation varies from country to country, the basic rea-son why the consultative referendum has such staying power lies in its fundamental difference from opinion polls. There is a cost involved for anyone about to vote. Maybe voters have to take time off from work, or they may have to walk or even spend money on transportation to get to the voting station. They also have to spend time gathering relevant information, listen to arguments for and against the issue at hand, and may campaign for or against it.
A telephone interview involves none of these costs. If the result of a referendum shows that 60 percent of voters oppose the construction of a certain railroad, the strength of that result is many times higher than that of an opinion poll showing the same result. Further, the active participation of voters in the referendum process carries a deeper democratic significance than the passive participation in an interview. These are the reasons why, despite the perfection of current opinion poll techniques, national governments still prefer to let people show their preferences in a vote.
From this perspective, a consultative referendum is not a "fake" referendum. The real problem lies in what happens if the result is not respected. This will not happen in a nationwide referendum, because no political party would dare go against the result of a referendum. In a local referendum, however, the result may be overridden by a higher level of government due to the difference in jurisdiction between the central and local governments.
California is fond of holding referendums, be it consultative or binding. However, in all the referendums held in California between 1960 and 1980, there were only three instances where the result was not declared partially or fully invalid by the state legislature or a state or federal court.
In 1996, in Japan, a referendum in Okinawa decided in favor of closing a US military base, but the existence of US military bases is regulated by international treaties and thus fall outside the jurisdiction of a local government.
But we cannot extrapolate from this and say that there is no sense in holding a consultative referendum. Even though referendums initiated by Californians often are deemed invalid, the referendum process brings systemic relief to racial conflict and the rich-poor divide.
Although the residents of Okinawa were unable to close the US military base, they obtained invaluable material gains and dignity. Following the Okinawa referendum, the Japanese have initiated almost 300 referendums.
In California, there are an average of 30 such referendum initiatives each year.
As these examples show, Ma's statement that consultative referendums are sources of chaos is clearly wrong. He says, however, that he will persuade the KMT to work for a referendum law, and that is commendable.
Liang Wen-chieh is deputy director of the DPP's Policy Coordination Committee.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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