When Taiwan started its transition to democracy, voices called for the democratic system to be completed by drawing up a referendum law. Thanks to the efforts of late Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮), among others, this demand gained a lot of support.
In response, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) attitude could be described as: “If you want a referendum law — fine, we will give you one.”
However, shamefully, what people got in 2003 was a worthless piece of paper that was called the Referendum Act (公民投票法), but which actually made it impossible to hold a referendum.
Having gained full control of the government and legislature in 2016, the DPP drew up amendment proposals to make the Referendum Act more reasonable and normal, and they gave this bill priority for legislation.
After vacillating for more than a year, the legislature finally passed the amendments into law two weeks ago, removing the unreasonable thresholds, conditions and procedures, and making it possible to hold real referendums.
While many people breathed a sigh of relief, they might not have noticed that the amended act still has a major “forbidden zone” that is off-limits to citizens’ referendum rights.
Taiwan has still not become a “normal” country in its domestic policy or its international relations. The root cause of its abnormal status is the Constitution of the Republic of China, which was written in a rush in 1947 and continued to be enforced in Taiwan after the KMT moved its government from China to Taiwan in 1949.
The Constitution treats Taiwan as a province of a China that also includes mainland China, Mongolia and Tibet, even though Mongolia was de facto independent long before the Constitution was written and has been a member of the UN since 1961. This fantasy came to be the biggest and most fundamental obstacle in the way of Taiwan’s normalization.
Successive KMT and DPP governments have not wanted or dared to demolish this obstacle by drawing up a reasonable and normal constitution that matches the reality. As no Taiwanese government or political party has managed to write a new constitution that would rationalize the extent of the nation’s territory, the issue can only be resolved through a popular referendum.
However, the amended Constitution completely cuts off this route, making this issue a “forbidden zone” in which ordinary citizens have no say. In effect, the Referendum Act has been emasculated. In the face of such treachery, people still have plenty to protest about.
Some people might fear that if a new constitution is written for Taiwan, it will provoke China and make it unhappy. However, China is not likely to launch a military attack on Taiwan for this reason.
China has made the Taiwanese government and public unhappy by repeatedly flying its warplanes around Taiwan, but China says: “In time, everyone will get used to it.”
If Taiwan were to get a new constitution, China would surely be unhappy about it, but Taiwan could just as well say that everyone can get used to that, too.
After the legislature amended the act, two similar cartoons were published in the media.
One shows a birdcage, representing the old version of the act, with its door wide open, allowing the caged bird, representing the people, to fly off freely into the clear, blue sky.
In the other, the cage’s door is open and the bird is standing outside, but one of its legs is firmly tied up inside the cage so that it cannot fly.
Under this emasculated Referendum Act, Taiwanese are more like the bird in the second cartoon, are they not?
Peng Ming-min was an adviser to former president Chen Shui-bian.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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