Walking into referendum trap
In the debate over the wording and conditions of the planned referendum on Taiwan Power Co’s (Taipower) Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Gongliao District (貢寮), little time has been given to analyzing why the Executive Yuan suddenly decided it would put the matter to a public vote.
This debate, and the vote on nuclear power, is a distraction from the true purpose of pushing for a referendum.
Construction on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant began in 1999 and was temporarily halted in 2000, before being resumed a year later.
In May 2000, legislators across party lines urged the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-controlled Legislative Yuan to pass a referendum act to allow the public to decide the matter.
The New Party and KMT both opposed passing the act because national referendums symbolized Taiwan’s independence — since voters from China would not be allowed to participate — and because it was feared the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) would use a referendum to put the question of unification with China to a direct vote.
In 2003, a heavily watered down Referendum Act (公民投票法) was passed that not only excluded issues of sovereignty, territory and a new constitution from being voted on, but also set in place the “Double-50” clause that requires more than 50 percent of the electorate to participate for a referendum to be valid, and more than 50 percent of those having to vote in favor of a proposal in order for it to be approved.
The KMT had again gracefully “compromised” in a way that secured all its own important objectives whilst allowing the opposition limited symbolic achievements of its own.
Almost every national referendum since has failed and the Referendum Review Committee has been an obedient guard dog for the KMT to prevent votes on important issues, such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).
Why then now call for a referendum on nuclear power?
First, since the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant project is almost complete, most of the construction contracts have been handed out and the budget already spent.
For the KMT, the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant was a way to distribute funds through patronage networks to ensure political support.
That has been achieved. The close relationship between the KMT and Taipower can be seen in the fact that Minister of Economic Affairs Chang Chia-juch (張家祝) is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.
Whether the plant goes into operation or whether it meets the nation’s energy requirements is academic.
It may then be the KMT’s strategy to use this referendum as a practice run.
In 2011, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) promised a referendum before signing any peace agreement with China.
That promise is an important component, alongside the ECFA, of Ma’s attempts to build the appearance of a public mandate to accelerate unification with China.
The nuclear referendum may be a ploy to gauge the strength of opposition and to determine the best way to frame and present a peace deal referendum.
Whilst the DPP and anti-nuclear groups are right to oppose the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and to call for amendments to the Referendum Act, they should also be wary of the government’s ulterior motives, lest they make themselves useful tools for an administration seeking to beguile Taiwanese into believing that they voted for unification.