For the past 20-odd years, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had always used referendums as a weapon in its confrontation with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Whenever the DPP proposed a referendum, the KMT tried to avoid the issue, for two reasons:
First, it was afraid that the DPP would use the referendum to push for a new constitution, a change of national title or to declare independence.
Second, it was a conservative, authoritarian party that strictly followed a top-down approach in decisionmaking and could not accept the idea of a bottom-up, direct democratic approach.
When the KMT was unable to stop the push for a referendum bill in 2003, it used its legislative majority to pull a dirty trick by turning the Referendum Act (公民投票法) into a “birdcage” act.
Later, in 2008, when it was unable to stop the then-DPP government from holding a referendum on the nation’s UN bid, it went all-out to convince supporters not to vote, so as to prevent the number of voters from reaching the threshold of 50 percent of all eligible voters required for the referendum to be legally binding. That was disgraceful trickery on the KMT’s part.
Things took an interesting turn in 2011.
When President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) proposal of signing a cross-strait peace agreement with China based on the “one country, two areas (一國兩區)” concept sparked controversy in the nation, he pledged that he would not sign it without the public’s approval through a referendum — and managed to save his presidential campaign in the process.
Today, as his administration remains haunted by controversy over the fate of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), he is once again proposing a referendum in the hope that it will resolve the issue.
However, the two referendum proposals are very different.
In the first case, in 2011, no action had been taken since Taiwan and China had not started peace talks. In the second, current case, the power plant project is ongoing and the government is proposing to increase its budget.
The biggest difference is the DPP’s attitude. The party felt free and at ease criticizing Ma’s empty talk about a cross-strait peace referendum, saying that the KMT was welcome to follow in its footsteps, and that the government should hurry up and hold the referendum.
This time around, the DPP is not so relaxed and furious party leaders are united in their criticism of the proposal as a trick.
Is the KMT trying to pull another fast one? To answer this question, let us think of why the party wants to hold a referendum. Most Taiwanese were spooked by the nuclear crisis in Japan two years ago, and now realize that the site and construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant are fraught with problems. Some pro-nuclear power KMT legislators have also made a U-turn, making it difficult to pass a proposal for additional budget for the project in the legislature.
If the KMT wants the project to continue, it needs a referendum to lend legitimacy to its nuclear policy in order to convince party lawmakers. If it wants to abandon the project, it also needs a referendum to convince pro-nuclear legislators — as such, the party has no choice but to hold an honest referendum.
One could claim that the high thresholds set for a referendum, the referendum review committee and other stipulations are dirty tricks, and that a vote based on this law would not be an honest reflection of the public’s views.