Now that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has decided to express the next referendum question in negative terms — “Do you agree that the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be halted and that it should not become operational?” — it seems like the format of the question is set. Putting aside for the moment the curious bipartite question (are continuing construction and putting the plant into operation one and the same thing?) and the unusual wording, it does seem clear that our “birdcage” Referendum Act (公民投票法) is not safe from willful manipulation by political parties.
How are referendum questions generally set? The basic principle is that they reflect the political stance of the party proposing the referendum. Essentially, if the governing party wants to construct — or continue building — a nuclear power plant, then the question will express this alternative in positive terms.
There are several examples of referendums on nuclear energy in Europe that we can look at. In 1978, for example, the world’s first national referendum on the issue of nuclear power was held in Austria, focusing on a plant in Zwentendorf.
Because the governing party advocated putting the completed power plant into operation as planned, the referendum question was expressed in positive terms: “Should the law passed by parliament on July 7, 1978, pertaining to the peaceful use of nuclear power in Austria [commissioning of Zwentendorf nuclear power station] be implemented?”
For obvious reasons, the government came out in defense of its policy of putting the plant into operation. However, it ultimately failed to persuade the public, which rejected the proposal by a margin of 1 percent.
In 2008, Lithuania held a referendum to decide whether to extend the operation of the Ignalina nuclear power plant.
The majority party in the Lithuanian parliament advocated the extension, and so proposed a question once again framed in the positive: “I approve of the extension of operation of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant for a technically safe period, but not longer than completion of the construction of a new nuclear power plant.”
The vote was overwhelmingly in favor, but because voter turnout was 48.44 percent, short of the 50 percent threshold, it was declared invalid. The plant was eventually decommissioned in 2009 due to pressure from the EU, which thought it dangerous because it used essentially the same design as the Chernobyl plant.
Last year, an alliance of many small opposition parties within the Lithuanian parliament, which had approved construction of a new nuclear plant, proposed another referendum on nuclear power. Again, the question was positive: “I approve of the building of a new nuclear power plant ...”
This time, the threshold was just about reached, with a voter turnout of 52.16 percent. The public rejected the construction of the new plant, with 64.78 percent against, and only 35.22 percent for. Despite the fact that the referendum was on a major issue that the whole of Lithuania was concerned about, and that both referendums were bundled with general elections — to take advantage of the high voter turnout — the first failed to pass the threshold and the second barely scraped past it. This demonstrates just how difficult it is for the 50 percent threshold to be passed.