Taiwan should abolish the 50 percent turnout requirement for referendums, promote offensive instead of defensive referendums and secure balloting secrecy in referendums, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) Europe.
Bruno Kaufmann, president of IRI Europe, and Mattias Goldmann, special advisor to IRI Sweden, made the recommendations in their joint paper Taiwan 2004 Referendum Assessment Report published on Monday.
Since last autumn, IRI has been offering advice on holding referendums. Two members of IRI Europe, including Kaufmann, were invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to monitor the March 20 referendum. They conducted a Taiwan Referendum Observation Mission between March 16 and March 23.
The two referendum questions failed because neither achieved the 50-percent turnout requirement.
The IRI Europe study said the 50- percent requirement significantly interfered with a free and fair democratic process. Such a threshold encouraged people to adopt boycotting tactics and did not enhance the dialogue and learning process between citizens, it added.
"No" votes and non-votes had been added together, making it very difficult to have a proposal adopted, the paper said.
"It is our strong recommendation, based on worldwide experience, to abolish the 50-percent turnout quorum in the Referendum Law (
The researchers noted that the "defensive referendum" called by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) under Article 17 of the Referendum Law became a victim of bipartisan competition, since it was held alongside the presidential election.
IRI Europe strongly recommended using "offensive" referendums on separate voting days in the future in order, it said, to promote the constructive elements of direct democracy.
"By `offensive' referendums we mean popular initiatives coming from the people of Taiwan and mandatory referendums on constitutional matters, as proposed by the opposition presidential candidate, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰)," the paper said.
IRI Europe also noted that in the March 20 referendum, people were forced to reveal whether they were taking part in the referendum or not, after having voted in the election. This interfered with the principle of confidentiality in democratic elections and referendums and should be avoided in the future, it said.
"The problem could be solved by not combining an election with a referendum, as well as by abolishing the 50-percent turnout requirement. But even if these factors remain, it is possible to secure voting secrecy by not physically separating the voting procedures," the study said.
Kaufmann and Goldmann observed preparations and voting in the referendum in several places in Taipei and Tainan.
A clear commitment to direct democracy, trouble-free execution, campaign effort, ballot papers, a specific referendum law and the existence of a legal body, the Referendum Review Commission, were cited by the paper as positive aspects of the referendum.
Driven by a strong commitment to direct democracy, discussions on the referendum focused on the specific procedures and the design, "which -- in comparison to many much older democracies in the West -- can be seen as an achievement," the study said.
The turnout quorum, the timing of the referendum, the "defensive referendum" eligibility, voting procedures, layout of the polling stations, the referendum questions and the handling of the referendum debates were seen as negative aspects.
"The Central Election Commission called for 10 public TV debates, which were virtually hijacked by talk-show hosts and other media personalities. It would have been better to have organized the debates along journalistic principles instead," the study said.
The study also criticized the Referendum Law for excluding budget issues, taxation, investment, salaries and personal matters as topics for referendums.
"The exclusion of almost all financial matters means that one of the issues most important to people is excluded from popular decision-making," the paper said.
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