Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Formulating referendum questions

By Lin Yu-hsiung 林鈺雄

This year, Bulgaria also held a referendum on the construction of a nuclear power plant. Again, this was advocated by the majority party and, again, the question was positive: “Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through construction of a new nuclear power plant?”

In this case, too, the threshold was not reached, and the referendum was declared invalid.

On the other hand, if the government is for nuclear power, and the referendum is proposed by anti-nuclear opposition parties or members of the public, the question is likely to be put in negative terms, to a stance opposing the policy set by the governing party.

This happened with two successive referendums on nuclear power in Italy. Although Italy held a referendum in 1987, the year after the Chernobyl disaster, to scrap nuclear power, and actually closed all the plants within its borders — including a new one that had been nearing completion — another proposal for a new nuclear power plant was passed by the majority parties in the country’s parliament in 2009.

Then, in 2011, those opposed to the idea took advantage of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster to propose a referendum to scrap the latest plant. The question in this referendum was written in negative terms — to scrap the planning and construction of the new nuclear power plant — to express the stance opposing the policy being implemented by the majority parties.

In Italy, the threshold is also set at 50 percent, and this referendum was, again, held together with a general election. The governing party went about trying to reduce the turnout, hoping to make the referendum fail, because this would have meant the pro-nuclear legislation would remain in effect, but in the end, it failed. The referendum was valid, with a voter turnout of 54.79 percent, passing the proposal to scrap nuclear power with a majority of 94.05 percent. People power sent Italy back into the fold of non-nuclear nations within Western Europe.

The point is, the way referendum questions are posed reflect the viewpoint of whoever proposes them. So why would the KMT, which has up to now always been pro-nuclear power and which wants the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant to continue, propose a referendum question that promotes the very opposite? Where is the sense in that? And for it to propose halting construction, or having some people speak in defense of the motion and others against, all this is simply turning direct democracy into a political soap opera.

There is a precedent to a government remaining neutral on an issue deemed too controversial, and leaving it to the general populace to decide, in the consultative referendum held in Sweden in 1980, the year following the Three Mile Island incident in the US. In this referendum, the question was presented as neutral options, listing non-nuclear alternatives under three different sets of conditions.

Returning to the referendum set by the KMT on the plant, there seems to be a contradiction between the proposed question and the reasons presented for it. The party assures us that the nation, the government and the opposition parties are all in agreement that a non-nuclear homeland is desirable, and that the differences lie solely in the timetable and the way in which it is achieved.

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