Sat, Nov 29, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Let referendum issue rest for now

On Thursday, the Legislative Yuan pulled off a trick worthy of a magician.

It is good that the legislature finally managed to pull a referendum law out of its hat, at long last giving the people of Taiwan a legal foundation for direct democracy. But it is sad that, apart from the Referendum Law (公民投票法), the hat contained nothing.

According to the law, there are strict limits on the people's right to hold referendums. Each referendum must be reviewed and approved by the Cabinet's Referendum Review Committee (公投審議委員會). The people's power is restricted by both the legislature and the Cabinet.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the green camp calls the law "birdcage legislation."

Yet Taiwan's democracy has always developed in this way.

Since the early days of campaigning for political rights, and the birth of an opposition party, the public and the opposition party have joined hands on street corners and in elections to demand that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) abolish bans on new parties and newspapers, lift martial law, and allow public gatherings and demonstrations.

The KMT, meanwhile, has used issues like social order, independence and Chinese military posturing to blunt such demands. We have in the end had creeping democratic reform that have been delivered in instalments.

Although the KMT is no longer the ruling party, the pan-blue alliance composed of the KMT and the People First Party (PFP) holds the majority in the legislature, and therefore it was able to dominate the referendum legislation.

Although the blue camp opposes referendums, it dares not defy public opinion with an election looming. Therefore, the blue alliance wavered, giving up only the smallest possible amount of power, and trying to establish an advantage for its presidential campaign.

The Referendum Law is a minimalist law that merely institutionalizes the right to initiative and referendum.

It stipulates that the public only can exercise its right to initiative or referendum on proposals put forth by central or local legislative bodies. People have the right to vote in, but not initiate, a referendum on constitutional amendments. Referendums on public affairs must be sent to the Referendum Review Committee for review. Executive bodies have no power to call advisory referendums.

The Cabinet said the law is not acceptable, and is considering sending it back to the legislature for more consideration.

We too are disappointed by the Referendum Law, but it is the decision of the legislature. Until the numbers in the opposition-dominated legislature change, the results will remain the same, even if the Cabinet does send the law back. And in that case, the legislature might dismiss the Cabinet and cause political chaos.

This would damage the DPP's chances in the presidential election, and would also harm the Taiwanese people and threaten the nation's economic recovery. The pan-green camp should turn the people's dissatisfaction into demands for legislative reform, and use next year's presidential and legislative elections to change the legislature.

Gaining complete referendum rights will require a long-term effort. At least this unsatisfactory law will put at ease a bellicose China and a nervous US. It is time for the public to focus once again on economic issues.

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