President Chen Shui-bian (
Chen said in his opening remarks at the International Conference on the Comparative Studies of Referendum hosted by Taiwan Thinktank that "referendums have to be tied to elections ... Not only it is normal in a democracy, it is also perfectly justified."
"Over the past four years, there has been a consensus among the ruling and opposition camps that referendums must be tied to elections ... Everyone is doing it, and no one says that it is in violation of laws and regulations or the Constitution," Chen said.
However, the nation's first referendum held in tandem with an election -- under Chen's leadership -- was slammed by the pan-blue camp as a ploy designed to garner election support in the 2004 presidential election and manipulate voters.
Initiative and Referendum Institute president Bruno Kaufmann, said he disagreed with Chen on this part when asked by the Taipei Times for comment.
"I don't share the point that referendums and elections should be done on the same day, because I think it's a risk to mix it up too much with party politics," Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann said that although holding a referendum in tandem with an election can help ensure referendum turnout reaches the quota required for the results to be valid, such a practice is not preferable. Kaufmann suggested Taiwan remove the article in the Referendum Law (公投法) that requires 50 percent voter turnout -- approximately 8 million voters -- for a referendum to be valid.
"I don't see a point in having a threshold for a referendum when you don't have it for elections. If you had it for elections, it would be logical to have it for referendums," Kaufmann said.
Chen has suggested that the law be amended to lower the voter turnout threshold.
"The law probably stipulates one of the highest thresholds in the world," Chen said.
In addition to the voter turnout threshold, the law stipulates that the signatures of 0.5 percent of eligible voters -- approximately 80,000 -- be collected to apply to hold a referendum. In the second application stage, 5 percent of eligible voters -- approximately 800,000 -- must sign the petition.
Kaufmann said that if signature and voter turnout requirements are too high, they become a hinder to direct democracy mechanisms.
Direct democracy activists from Palau, Switzerland, Japan, the US and East Timor, among other countries, also attended the forum, sharing the experiences their countries have had holding referendums.
Zoltan Tibor Pallinger, former deputy head of the Electoral Commission of Switzerland, said Swiss direct democracy was guided by the principle that popular involvement should be higher the more important the issue at hand is.
"Consequently, the entity which has the greatest democratic legitimacy, i.e. the people, must be able to participate in and also have the last word in the most important matters," he said.
Next year will again see referendums held in tandem with elections. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is pushing for a referendum on reclaiming the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) stolen assets to be held along with the legislative election in January, and the KMT is seeking to hold an "anti-corruption" referendum demanding that officials convicted of corruption return embezzled funds to the public.