The nation has become embroiled in yet another debate on the fate of the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市).
This time, politicians seem to have reached a consensus on resolving the controversy by a referendum, but they have argued over almost every aspect of the poll and the Referendum Act (公民投票法), which used to be described as the pride of Taiwan because of its implication of basic civic rights and democratic values.
The points of argument include the form of the referendum — national or local — because while the plant is located in New Taipei City, a nuclear disaster could impact the entire country; the framing of the referendum question; and the opposition’s claim that the referendum act is a “birdcage” because of its unusually high threshold.
A brief examination of past referendums explains why it is time to revisit — and, perhaps, amend — the law.
Of the six national and three local referendums that have been held, the local referendum in Matsu last year over the construction of a casino resort was the only one that passed.
Voting in all the referendums failed to pass the required threshold of half of the electorate. The Matsu referendum only passed because referendums in offshore islands are not required to meet the turnout threshold.
Of the six — two in 2004 and four in 2008 — national referendums, which were all held during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, the opposition submitted a referendum proposal each time to challenge the ruling party, which had proposed three referendums.
The Taiwan Solidarity Union’s (TSU) proposals for a referendum on the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) were rejected by the Referendum Review Committee three times and, despite the party later winning an appeal after a ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, its proposal was not validated.
The design of the referendum mechanism has the following flaws:
First, because of the high turnout threshold, those who do not vote in effect cast veto votes, which violates the democratic principle that those who forgo voting leave decisionmaking to those who do vote.
Second, while many condemn political parties’ practice of combining referendums with major elections, the strategy was actually the result of the high threshold because it was understood that the referendums could not pass without making use of the high turnouts seen in major elections.
Third, as the mechanism makes it almost inevitable that referendums will fail, the referendum law could easily become a tool for politicians to sabotage their rivals’ moves. The flaw can be seen in the Cabinet-proposed initiative, because the government does not intend to ask voters whether construction of the plant should continue — the position favored by the government — but whether construction should be suspended.
Lastly, the review committee, with its members nominated by the Cabinet, also becomes a tool of the government to reject undesirable proposals or find fault with the content of the proposals, as it did with the TSU initiatives.
The development of Taiwan’s nuclear energy sector is a salient issue, particularly after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in March 2011. While it is perhaps not a right-or-wrong issue, it should be a decision made by the public.
If the government is serious about the referendum and respecting democracy, now is a good time to re-examine the Referendum Act, which could affect not only Taiwan’s choice with regards to nuclear energy, but many more issues in the future.