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Taiwan in Time: The dawn of the referendum era

Taiwan’s first national referendum in March 2004 was unusual, as President Chen Shui-bian invoked the Referendum Act’s ‘defensive’ referendum clause, which allowed him to call one because he said Taiwan’s sovereignty was threatened

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Ballots for Taiwan’s first national referendum on March 20, 2004.

Photo: Chen Wei-jen, Taipei Times

Dec. 3 to Dec. 9

Under today’s relaxed rules, the two questions in Taiwan’s first national referendum in March 2004 would have passed overwhelmingly. The referendum came at a sensitive time, with then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) running for reelection and Beijing watching closely.

The two questions were:

“The People of Taiwan demand that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should Mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the Government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities?”

“Would you agree that our Government should engage in negotiation with Mainland China on the establishment of a ‘peace and stability’ framework for cross-strait interactions in order to build consensus and for the welfare of the peoples on both sides?”

Over 90 percent of the roughly 7 million votes were in favor of both questions. However, a voter turnout of 50 percent was required back then for a referendum to pass. Both questions fell just short at just over 45 percent.

The questions were toned-down versions of Chen’s earlier rhetoric demanding that China immediately withdraw all ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and openly renounce the use of force.

The US was pleased with the revised questions but “stopped short of explicitly endorsing the new phrasing... which [was] still likely to upset the Chinese,” reported the New York Times.

Chen, then-chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was also dealing with domestic pressures. His opponents had been opposed to the referendums since the DPP introduced the first draft of the Referendum Act in July 2003.


National referendums are a relatively modern invention. There were only 73 recorded national referendums before 1900, with none in Asia. Only 12 countries provided for national referendums until the 1940s, when the number began to grow steadily before shooting up in the 1990s.

As early as 1947, in the aftermath of the 228 Incident — an anti-government uprising that was brutally suppressed — writer and businessman Chiu Yung-han (邱永漢) petitioned the UN to allow Taiwanese to decide the future of Taiwan through a national referendum. This did not happen due to the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) authoritarian rule and Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) insistence that Taiwan was a part of China.

Between 1990 and 2003, 16 local referendums were held, but none at the national level.

In the years leading up to the Referendum Act, Chen mentioned national referendums several times — first, with reference to the future of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant; then in 2002, in support of legislation authorizing a referendum to declare Taiwanese independence. Lawmakers began to draft a bill in March 2003, but the DPP was not happy with the version that Chen’s cabinet approved, which excluded referendums on independence and national security.

Chen again called for a national referendum in May 2003 after Taiwan’s failed bid to join the WHO, but it did not take place because there was no legislation. By July, the DPP unveiled a draft bill that would authorize the president to initiate a referendum on “issues pertinent to national security if Taiwan were threatened by foreign powers such that its sovereignty could be altered.” This came to be known as the “defensive” referendum clause.

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