Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 8 News List

DPP needs public to be onside for referendum

By Ku Er-teh 顧爾德

In the short-term, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) government hopes promoting referendums will entice more people to vote for it in the presidential election.

The medium-term goal is to be prepared for a possible future constitutional amendment, and the long-term goal may be to use a "preventive" referendum to declare Taiwan's unwillingness to be annexed by China; or it may be what Cabinet Spokesman Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) referred to as "deepening democracy."

The government's greatest worry is that the opposition will be afraid to directly oppose the legitimacy of referendums, but will use legislative technicalities to restrict the timing and targets of referendums as well as thresholds for initiating referendums.

This is why the government keeps stressing that a referendum can be held without existing legislation. Germany, Greece, Denmark and Finland have all held binding or consultative referendums without a legal foundation, instead basing them on their respective constitutions.

The government hopes to persuade the public to recognize that, based on fundamental rights such as "people power" and "self-determination," even a referendum without a legal foundation is legitimate.

Such persuasion may be combined with social movements and local autonomy. For example, the referendums on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Kungliao and on the opening of an exit on the Taipei-Ilan freeway in Pinglin were initiated by social and local autonomous organizations. From a certain perspective, such mobilization serves to deepen democracy, since it can set off a wish among the general public to participate in public affairs. Such deepening is incomplete however, and it faces two major problems.

First, grassroots social organizations and autonomous groups often treat referendums as a tool for social movements. If a solution meeting their ideals cannot be found through other channels, they will use the referendum as a weapon to express the wish of local residents.

The crux of the problem is that there is no good mechanism for dialogue and that the policy formulation process lacks a mechanism for consensus-building.

A referendum, however, does not guarantee this mechanism. Rather, it will encourage other groups to bypass debate and dialogue and instead go directly to a referendum. Such a situation does not further the development of a civil society.

Second, although the right of citizens to hold referendums is not in doubt, the target of a referendum often involves complex legal issues. A lack of legal guidelines will lead to a complex and negative outcome. For example, opening a freeway exit in Pinglin would affect one of the sources of water for the Greater Taipei area. Should a referendum on such an issue be directed at Taipei County and Taipei City residents, or at Pinglin residents? Which referendum should be considered legitimate if public opinion in the greater Taipei area differed from that in Pinglin?

This issue should not be addressed by referendum, but rather as part of a policy debate.

The best strategy is not to urge the public to accept the legitimacy of referendums without legal foundation. It would instead be to mobilize the public and demand that legislators enact a referendum law without unreasonable restrictions.

A discriminating decision-making mechanism together with public participation is the standard method for solving conflict between policy and public opinion. A referendum should only be a last resort. In addition to requiring the support of forces in civil society, the will of the government is even more important to the successful establishment of such a mechanism.

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