Formulating referendum questions

By Lin Yu-hsiung 林鈺雄  / 

Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - Page 8

Now that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has decided to express the next referendum question in negative terms — “Do you agree that the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be halted and that it should not become operational?” — it seems like the format of the question is set. Putting aside for the moment the curious bipartite question (are continuing construction and putting the plant into operation one and the same thing?) and the unusual wording, it does seem clear that our “birdcage” Referendum Act (公民投票法) is not safe from willful manipulation by political parties.

How are referendum questions generally set? The basic principle is that they reflect the political stance of the party proposing the referendum. Essentially, if the governing party wants to construct — or continue building — a nuclear power plant, then the question will express this alternative in positive terms.

There are several examples of referendums on nuclear energy in Europe that we can look at. In 1978, for example, the world’s first national referendum on the issue of nuclear power was held in Austria, focusing on a plant in Zwentendorf.

Because the governing party advocated putting the completed power plant into operation as planned, the referendum question was expressed in positive terms: “Should the law passed by parliament on July 7, 1978, pertaining to the peaceful use of nuclear power in Austria [commissioning of Zwentendorf nuclear power station] be implemented?”

For obvious reasons, the government came out in defense of its policy of putting the plant into operation. However, it ultimately failed to persuade the public, which rejected the proposal by a margin of 1 percent.

In 2008, Lithuania held a referendum to decide whether to extend the operation of the Ignalina nuclear power plant.

The majority party in the Lithuanian parliament advocated the extension, and so proposed a question once again framed in the positive: “I approve of the extension of operation of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant for a technically safe period, but not longer than completion of the construction of a new nuclear power plant.”

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor, but because voter turnout was 48.44 percent, short of the 50 percent threshold, it was declared invalid. The plant was eventually decommissioned in 2009 due to pressure from the EU, which thought it dangerous because it used essentially the same design as the Chernobyl plant.

Last year, an alliance of many small opposition parties within the Lithuanian parliament, which had approved construction of a new nuclear plant, proposed another referendum on nuclear power. Again, the question was positive: “I approve of the building of a new nuclear power plant ...”

This time, the threshold was just about reached, with a voter turnout of 52.16 percent. The public rejected the construction of the new plant, with 64.78 percent against, and only 35.22 percent for. Despite the fact that the referendum was on a major issue that the whole of Lithuania was concerned about, and that both referendums were bundled with general elections — to take advantage of the high voter turnout — the first failed to pass the threshold and the second barely scraped past it. This demonstrates just how difficult it is for the 50 percent threshold to be passed.

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.

However, it then also provides five reasons for halting the construction and banning the operation of the power plant, as well as five counterarguments, suggesting that the goal of proposing the referendum in the first place was to dissipate the controversy and appeal to the will of the public by encouraging debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power in the wider society, much like the Swedish government did in 1980. It is a way to divest itself of all responsibility for the outcome.

This being the case, it would be better for the proposed question to be expressed as a neutral option, as in: “You agree that construction of the fourth nuclear power plant should 1. continue, or 2. be halted.” This would be a far more straightforward and honest way to go about it.

Lin Yu-hsiung is a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Law.

Translated by Paul Cooper