President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is a man on a mission. Or rather, the unelected powers behind the throne are on a mission, and anything that stands in their way is either ignored or dispensed with.
Proof of this mindset came from the horse’s mouth last Wednesday when, asked whether the government should hold a referendum on a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with China, he said: “We simply cannot hold a referendum because some people are against a government initiative.”
Some people? Even if we believe Ma’s questionable assertion that 60 percent of Taiwanese support a CECA, this leaves us with 40 percent who do not — a substantial part of the population. Nor is the agreement just any government initiative: It is legislation that would have a direct impact on the lives of all Taiwanese and the future of the country.
All the more so when, in December, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) said that signing a CECA under the “one China” principle, which Beijing insists upon, would be an important step toward “reunification.” Given this, a CECA would be far more than just an economic agreement; it would have political ramifications that would, once the electorate becomes aware of them, substantially reduce public support for the initiative.
Ma added that “the thresholds for a referendum are so high that many referendums have failed in the past,” neglecting to mention that they were invalidated because the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) called on constituents to boycott them.
The president has also countered calls for a referendum by stating that a CECA would have to be reviewed by the legislature. Under normal circumstances, this would be a reasonable position. But given the composition of the legislature, the review would be no more than rubber-stamping. No wonder National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi (蘇起) has said that signing a CECA is a set policy. Or did he mean fait accompli?
Unlike what Ma has claimed, there are examples of referendums elsewhere being used to moderate government policies. In October 2007, Costa Rica held a referendum on whether to join the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The country was deeply divided over the matter and was under pressure from the US to vote “yes.” In the end, 97 percent of eligible voters participated and 51.5 percent voted in favor.
In Switzerland, where referendums are common practice, Referendumsdrohung — the threat of referendum — is a common phenomenon based on the understanding that even the most sophisticated system of proportional representation (which Taiwan certainly does not enjoy) cannot guarantee that the parliament or government represents public opinion on a given political question.
In Taiwan’s case, this is even clearer, as the deals with China are being made behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny and by unelected officials, with the underlying threat that any deal can be exploited by Beijing to undermine the nation’s sovereignty.
A CECA with China is a very serious matter, regardless of what Ma says. Taiwan needs its Referendumsdrohung. Absent this, threat of impeachment might be the next best option.