On Feb. 25, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) announced the government’s intention to settle the matter of construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), through a referendum. A lot of discussion has ensued, with most Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members supporting the referendum proposal..
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has said that holding a referendum on whether to suspend construction of the plant could put an end to the controversy about the plant’s construction, so it will not keep weighing the nation down. Evidently, there has been a subtle shift in the KMT’s position on this issue.
Criticisms of the referendum proposal have been focused on technical aspects of the existing Referendum Act (公民投票法), such as the threshold for passing a referendum being too high, that the proposed wording of the referendum is unfair and that no national referendum has ever been passed.
Critics say that the government has ulterior motives for proposing a referendum at this time. They say the Referendum Act should be amended to lower the vote threshold, because only then can the result reflect public opinion and be regarded as an endorsement of government policy.
The KMT has agreed not to increase the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant’s budget or install fuel rods before the proposed referendum is held, but this apparent display of goodwill is open to interpretation.
One reading of the KMT’s pledge is that the party thinks there is no harm in conceding a little at this stage, because the threshold is set so high that the referendum cannot possibly pass, in which case it is almost certain that construction of the plant will continue. Cabinet ministries and departments also have the advantage in terms of resources.
The KMT may think it can concentrate its forces on this main battlefield to annihilate the anti-nuclear camp and settle the matter once and for all.
Although this interpretation would explain the overnight U-turn in the Ma administration’s attitude to holding a referendum, the prelude to the referendum battle has only just started. There are still plenty of things that could happen, so it is too early to predict with certainty who will be the winner.
The KMT’s legislative majority gives it control over legislation, so it can refuse to amend the law. It can also set the wording of the referendum, put out biased information and persuade members of the public who have qualms about stopping construction at the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant not to vote in the referendum, which would likely cause it to fail. It appears, that the KMT has a well-thought out plan, making it an easy victory for the party.
In comparison, the oppostion appears to be in a state of disarray, with groups and individuals doing as they see fit. How can they work together? Who is going to lead such a movement? There is no clear answer to these questions at the moment. It is little wonder that so many defeatist voices have been heard. The questions are how politically mature Taiwanese are, and how determined and capable are the civic groups.
A referendum on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be seen as an opportunity to stimulate social forces. As the initial confusion begins to clear, civic groups should be getting ready to convene a national conference on the proposed referendum.
The proposal will test whether public policy issues can rise above the pan-blue and pan-green political rivalry.
Citizens, are you ready to fight?
Ku Chung-hwa is a board member of Citizen Congress Watch.
Translated by Julian Clegg