Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Referendums a tool, not a cure-all

By Chiou Chang-tay 丘昌泰

There has been a lot of arguing between government forces and opposition forces concerning who should have the right to initiate a referendum.

The green camp's position is that the government should have the right of initiative, while the blue camp's position focuses on public initiative, but with some accompanying mechanism.

In European countries, there are those where referendums are initiated by the government, those where the law specifies when the government is bound to initiate a referendum, and those where initiative is non-governmental and rests with, for example, the public or parliament.

Looking at trends between 1940 and 1969, 13 referendums were held on governmental initiative, four on non-governmental initiative and nine were held where the government was bound by law to initiate a referendum. Between 1970 and 1999, governments initiated 17 referendums, 46 were held on non-governmental initiative and there were 26 referendums where the government was bound to initiate a referendum.

Judging from this, beginning in the 1990s, European countries have put increasing emphasis on non-governmental mechanisms for initiating a referendum.

Why would a government need to initiate a referendum? For no other reason than political strategy and factional operations -- they believe that it will be easier to get the people to pass a certain bill in a referendum than to get parliament to pass it.

Examples are the referendums on the future of nuclear power in Austria in 1978 and Sweden in 1980, and Finland's referendum on whether or not to join the EU in 1994.

Another reason is the hope to use an external referendum to solve intra-party conflict over a certain issue and to disarm a tense relationship -- for example, the referendum on Algerian independence held by France in 1962, and direct presidential elections.

Democratic politics means responsible politics. A government must be responsible, and must respect the wishes of voters when it decides to initiate public undertakings.

When a government finds that parliamentary suggestions go against its own policies, it chooses a referendum topic that it believes to be advantageous to the implementation of its political undertakings.

If a government in Taiwan advanced an initiative based on its own concerns or those of its party, the country's diversity of opinion would mean that the government wouldn't necessarily succeed in its scheme.

To make a referendum binding, the blue camp has proposed a specific "punishment" clause. Looking at the European experience, this kind of regulation is almost non-existent. It would in fact be very difficult to find someone responsible for all the different referendum issues.

In, for example, a referendum on changes to the national territory, who would be responsible if the outcome were to be negative?

The consultative referendum proposed by the green camp would in fact be an interim solution until a referendum law was passed.

Once the government and opposition passes a referendum law, the implementation of binding referendums should be stipulated by law. It would certainly not be necessary to spend this much time and effort if the result only were to be a non-binding, consultative referendum.

In fact, again looking at the European experience, a majority of referendums are legally binding referendums.

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