Tue, Nov 06, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Referendums bolster democracy

By Huang Wu-hsiung 黃武雄

A referendum is an expression of direct democracy. It compensates for the shortcomings of a representative democracy. Having a democracy is not only about letting people vote, but also about letting them vote on public issues. Referendums allow voters to express their preference on specific matters, and raise the general level of civic understanding.

Intensive debate and analysis prior to a referendum stimulate general concern about society and facilitate an understanding of public affairs. They increase the public’s understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of different views, which improves a democratic system.

Taiwan has set in place a mechanism for holding referendums, but there is no platform for informing the public as to their content, or showcasing the two sides of the issue being voted on. This is extremely dangerous.

A prerequisite for referendums should be the organization of public discussion and debates. Without these, referendums deviate from the true spirit of direct democracy. Any new system must be carefully thought through, or its flaws risk plunging society into turmoil.

With the volume of online information and the prevalence of fake news, the government should establish a public discussion platform. Through negotiations with existing networks, a TV channel could be created that focuses solely on broadcasting debates on referendum proposals. For example, the Public Television Service could air debates on referendum issues and discussions from both sides.

Elections in Taiwan are essentially about voting for individuals. Voters will turn out on election day, even though they understood that the winner will most likely fall short of the public’s expectations and fail to represent everyone’s interests.

It is generally understood, too, that elected officials might become embroiled in corruption somewhere down the line. Most Taiwanese are familiar with the concept of “casting one’s ballot in tears,” where one is perfectly aware that no ideal candidates exist.

Voting on a public issue is a different matter, because each voter has a voice — saying whether they are for or against something — and knows that their choice has a direct impact on an issue that will shape the nation.

Voting on a public issue in a referendum is not only a citizen’s right, but also their civic duty. When casting that ballot — on whether, for example, to resume nuclear power generation — the voter is master of the nation.

Government officials as high as the president and the premier must all comply with the result collectively decided on. Therefore, before casting a ballot, people ought to work hard to understand the issue’s context and mull over a referendum’s potential impact, because everyone, including future generations, will be affected the result.

Most Taiwanese are indifferent to politics, considering themselves mere bystanders in the civic sphere. Since the end of last year, when amendments to the Referendum Act (公民投票法) were adopted, no one need feel like a civic onlooker.

Casting a ballot and proposing a referendum are both participation. If people feel that something is wrong in society, or in need of improvement, they can organize, propose a referendum and launch a petition. If a referendum passes, the government is obliged to act.

Referendum topics can vary from whether legislation limiting the number of vehicles should be enacted to whether public land should only be rented, not sold, and whether public transportation in remote areas along the coast or in the mountains — where it has been halted for years — should be restored.

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