In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, members of the legislature’s Internal Administration Committee yesterday reached a consensus on lowering the legal voting age for referendums from 20 to 18 through an amendment to the Referendum Act (公民投票法).
However, legislators remained gridlocked over more divisive reforms to the act, including the abolishment of the much-maligned 50 percent turnout threshold. The committee is to continue its review of the act later this month.
While the Executive Yuan’s version of the amendment focused on reforms to allow absentee voting, critics accused the government of using absentee voting as a distraction from other more important issues.
Photo: Chang Chia-ming, Taipei Times
As legislators engaged in a heated debate over eight proposed versions of changes to the act, protests erupted outside the legislative compound throughout the day.
During the meeting, Executive Yuan Secretary-General Chien Tai-lang (簡太郎) said he was determined to keep the turnout threshold at 50 percent.
“It would be more appropriate [for the threshold] to be higher, not lower,” Chien said, adding that since nationwide referendums are usually concerned with issues of national importance, a higher threshold would be in accordance with democratic principles.
Led by youth activist group Taiwan March, dozens of young people remained encamped outside the legislative compound yesterday as they blasted their demands that the turnout threshold be abolished over a loudspeaker.
They said that the current threshold deprived people of their right to participate in politics through channels of direct democracy.
The 50 percent turnout threshold has long been criticized as being unattainable, as all six national referendums held since the passage of the Referendum Act in 2003 have failed to attract the required turnout.
Student activist Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), who played a leading role in the Sunflower movement protests in March and April last year — in which hundreds of thousands of protesters expressed anger over the government’s handling of a proposed trade pact with China — led demonstrators to chant slogans that accused the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of obstructing reforms.
Other activist organizations rallied outside the legislature, including the New Power Party, as well as youth activist groups Flanc Radical and Citizen 1985.
Aside from abolishing the turnout threshold for referendums, the groups also demanded that the threshold for petitions to launch referendums be lowered.
General referendums can be initiated by members of the public through a two-stage process: a first-phase petition, which requires the support of 0.5 percent of the electorate, followed by a second phase, which requires signatures from 5 percent.
Taiwan March advocates for the petition thresholds of the two successive phases to be lowered to 0.01 percent and 1.5 percent of the electorate respectively. Given that there are about 18 million eligible voters in the nation, the proposed new thresholds would require signatures from about 1,800 and 270,000 people respectively.
However, Chien said that although lowering petition thresholds “could be discussed,” further calculations should take place before determining an exact number.
He added that it would be inadvisable for the petition threshold to be too low, as it would be a waste of public resources if the nation held too many referendums.
Chien’s remarks drew criticism from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Pasuya Yao (姚文智), who said that the Executive Yuan was clearly stalling on the issue.
Statements made by other KMT legislators during the meeting sparked fury among netizens, who accused the KMT of using long-winded and off-topic comments to delay the progress of the meeting.
KMT Legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) drew the most criticism for comments he made during his five appearances on the speaker’s podium.
At one point during the meeting, Chang defended his actions before the Sunflower movement protests last year by discussing the example of Chinese reformer Liang Qichao (梁啟超) of the Qing Dynasty.
Chang said that like Liang, who remained persistent despite opposition from conservative forces in China that opposed trade with the West, he too insisted on the importance of international trade agreements for Taiwan.
Last year, Chang’s attempt to ram through a proposed trade pact with China within 30 seconds was seen as the trigger for the series of protests now known as the Sunflower movement and the occupation of the Legislative Yuan’s main chamber for 23 days.
Taiwan March founder Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), a researcher at Academia Sinica, accused KMT legislators at the meeting of “obstructing the progress of Taiwanese society.”
“With their meaningless comments on stage, it was a complete waste of taxpayers’ time and money,” he said after the meeting ended.
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