Mon, Dec 29, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Penghu voting fiasco holds a lesson

Any scientist will tell you that almost as much can be learned from failure as success. Perhaps this goes for political science too. On Saturday the people of Penghu were asked to vote in a referendum on whether they supported the Penghu County Government's drive to have laws relating to offshore island development policy changed.

The gambling issue has been around for a decade and throughout that time has been portrayed as a gladiatorial issue in which the bitterly divided residents of that remote archipelago were prepared to fight to the death for or against what half of them believed was a a failing local economy's only lifeline, while the other half deplored the "girls, gangs and guns" baggage they believed would inevitably follow from turning Penghu into a Macao-style gambling enclave.

Inevitably the county government turned to a referendum to adjudicate the issue. Saturday's was not the first referendum, either; one running in conjunction with local elections in June last year had claimed to show 80 percent support for legalizing casinos. There was, at that time, no law about how referendums should be conducted or under what circumstances they could be considered valid, so the conduct of the poll was left pretty much up to the county government. The balloting methods were afterwards called into question by a number of legislators. The legislators also pointed to a poll conducted six months before, which showed 45 percent for gambling and 38 percent against, once again casting doubt on the referendum result.

On Saturday they tried again. And the result was that nobody seemed to care. Only 21 percent of those eligible bothered to vote. True, 57 percent of those that did were pro-casino. But all that proves is that 12 percent of those eligible to vote in Penghu care enough about the benefits of casino gambling to turn out and vote for it.

This is not a mandate for anything. So the scandal surrounding this vote is that Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Penghu County Commissioner Lai Feng-wei (賴峰偉) had the gall to suggest that his administration now had the green light from voters to lobby the central government for the necessary legal changes to go ahead with the casino project. Actually, the mass no-show of voters should be interpreted as voters rejecting the county government's plans while not wishing to slam the door on the casino option entirely. Lai should be taking his proposals back to the drawing board, not the Legislative Yuan.

But on Saturday we also learned something about the new Referendum Law, namely how necessary it is -- though it has yet to be promulgated. For it is clear that under the new law either the referendum would not have taken place, since a referendum cannot be called by the executive power or, if it did, by virtue of the petition needed to set it in motion, it would have engaged the people of Penghu far more. On top of this, the new law mandates that a referendum has to have at least half the eligible voters cast ballots to be considered valid. Penghu's vote on Saturday failed this by a long chalk.

Whatever the flaws in the Referendum Law as it is, it is still better than letting political grandstanders like Lai waste resources on pet hobby horses in order to claim support which they quite obviously do not have. Penghu's vote on Saturday, by any reasonable standards, failed to solve anything. That has taught us something about Penghu -- that it needs to think again -- and about the Referendum Law -- that we need it badly. Thanks for that.

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