Before the Referendum Law (公民投票法) was passed in 2003, Taiwan had already held referendums at the local level. Since a committee protesting the construction of a fifth naphtha cracker plant by CPC Corp, Taiwan in Houchin (後勁), Kaohsiung City, held the nation’s first referendum in 1990, there have been other referendums on various public issues.
In 1994, a referendum was held on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Kungliao Township (貢寮) in Taipei County. In 1995, another referendum on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and a referendum on road construction in Sijhih (汐止) were held in Taipei County. Other referendums that year included another on nuclear power in Taipei City, one on the construction of Yongkang Park (永康公園) in Taipei City and one on the exploration of Daliao Township (大寮) in Kaohsiung County.
In 1997, a referendum was held on the reconstruction of Liaoting Community (寮頂) in Chiayi County and in 1998 a major investment project proposed by Bayer AG was put to a referendum in Taichung County.
The same year, a plebiscite was also held in Tainan City on Taiwan’s future.
All of these referendums lacked a legal basis, however, so the results were not legally binding. The results of the referendum on the construction of Yongkang Park, however, were recognized by the Taipei City Government as binding.
Since the Referendum Law was passed, six nationwide referendums have been held. In 2004, two plebiscites were held, one on increasing the nation’s purchase of anti-missile weaponry and one on negotiations with China on the establishment of a peace and stability framework. In January, two referendums were held in tandem with the legislative elections: the Democratic Progressive Party’s referendum on recovering the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) stolen assets and the KMT-proposed referendum on giving the legislature investigative powers.
Two more plebiscites were held in conjunction with the presidential election in March, both on seeking UN membership.
Although the results of each of the six referendums were affirmative, all were invalid because the total voter turnout fell below the legally specified minimum.
Before the Referendum Law became reality, it was impossible for the public to directly communicate their opinions on important issues to the government. It was not easy to pass this law. Without the efforts of academics, experts, civic organizations and the general public, legally binding direct democracy would never have been possible. However, the referendum system has repeatedly fallen victim to vicious political power struggles, which has led to boycotts that have taken advantage of the high threshold for valid results.
This has shown the deficiencies in the legislation, which must be amended in order for the act to serve its purpose: allowing the public a vehicle to communicate their will on crucial matters.
The government, political parties and the public each have an important role in deepening the nation’s democracy. The government has the obligation to promote referendums and inform the public about them in a fair and transparent manner. Political parties need to throw their weight behind an amendment to the legislation rather than boycotting referendums for their own ends. The public, meanwhile, has a duty to exercise its rights when there is a plebiscite.
Together, the government, political parties and the public should strive to expand the role of referendums in the nation’s democracy.
Chen Lung-chu is chairman of the Taiwan New Century Foundation.
TRANSLATED BY TED YANG
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