The trouble with referendums, as former French president Francois Mitterrand famously said, is that when the government solicits voters’ opinions on a certain question, it invariably gets an answer to a completely different one. The experience of referendums in Western democracies has shown that the way people vote is more complex than simply answering the question posed.
In Taiwan, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding surrounding referendums, and this is true of both the governing and opposition parties and of the pro and anti-nuclear lobbies. Mitterrand believed that voters’ answers are usually more reflective of their level of trust in the government and of how they rate its performance.
For example, when a referendum was held on the EU draft constitution treaty in 2005, the vast majority of voters in France and the Netherlands voted against it, not because the draft was bad for their countries — it was not — but because they did not trust their governments, or loathed the governing party. The result was that the EU’s constitution treaty was sacrificed at the altar of public dissatisfaction, and had to be revised before it was finally ratified.
So where does that leave the proposed referendum on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市)?
If it does go ahead, voters might not answer the question posed by the legislature, but instead answer in a way that reflects their dissatisfaction with, and distrust for, the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
This distrust originates not only from reports of Taiwan Power Co’s willful glossing over of safety concerns at the plant, nor from its policy of purchasing unnecessary electricity reserves from independent power producers as well as the general mismanagement of the company alone. It comes more from the government’s reluctance to be held accountable for its decision to support construction of the plant, and instead leaving it to a referendum it knows is likely to fail because of the high turnout threshold, hoping to thereby legitimize a policy it has already decided upon.
If one has a referendum system in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion, how can the public accept the outcome?
The budget for the nuclear plant is, according to a constitutional interpretation by the Council of Grand Justices, a massnahmegesetz (law of measures), meaning that if the government wants to halt the construction of the plant it would need to consult the legislature. Nevertheless, if the government believed the vast majority of the public were against nuclear power, and it was willing to comply with their wishes, then it could abolish nuclear power in this country using its executive power coupled with the governing party’s legislative majority.
However, the Ma administration would prefer to hide behind a referendum, in what is a terrible example of representative government. If it truly wanted to set a good example of democracy in Taiwan, it should accept the advice it has been getting from all quarters and amend the Referendum Act (公民投票法) to lower the turnout threshold for referendums on major government policies.
If the government chooses to use an unfair, biased system and dress it up as legitimate, who can blame the public for registering their anger by voting in a certain way in the referendum?
This anger is, after all, built upon common sense: in Greater Taipei, with its high population density, located as it is on an active earthquake belt, residents will be defenseless against a nuclear disaster.
David Huang is an associate research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper