Tue, Sep 29, 2009 - Page 3 News List

ANALYSIS: Analysts say referendum highlights problems

By Shih Hsiu-Chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Local residents watch a debate on the government’s proposal to set up casinos in Penghu in front of a temple in Magong City on Friday evening.


Saturday’s referendum on casino resorts in Penghu County proceeded smoothly, but highlighted problems with procedural justice, analysts said.

A total of 42.16 percent of Penghu County’s 73,651 eligible voters turned out for the referendum, with 17,359 votes, or 56.44 percent, against the proposition to allow the opening of casinos on the islands.

At the center of the controversy regarding its procedural fairness was that the referendum, based on the Offshore Islands Development Act (離島建設條例), was binding regardless of voter turnout.

It permitted the licensing of casinos on Taiwan’s offshore islands pending the results of a referendum in a way that excluded such votes from the threshold stipulated in the 2003 Referendum Act (公民投票法). That act requires more than half of eligible voters to cast ballots for a poll to be valid.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which controlled the legislature at the time, introduced the clause, saying “Penghu County has a severe population loss problem.”

“Using the rationale to exempt the poll from the threshold is doubtful,” said Wang Yeh-lih (王業立), a professor of political science at National Taiwan University.

“It’s not a good enough reason for the exemption, as whether to set up casinos is a big issue for a region’s development,” he said.

After the referendum, pro-casino voters said they respected the result.

If the turnout was too low and the margin very small, there could have been a legitimacy problem, Wang said.

According to the government’s statistics agency, last year Penghu saw approximately 37 percent of its working population leave, a figure that explained the concerns of pro-casino forces that a 50 percent turnout threshold was too high.

“It’s apparent that setting no turnout threshold for referendums in outlying islands was tinged with political overtones,” said Lin Jih-wen (林繼文), a researcher at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science.

“There is no universal standard for thresholds. In France referendum results are respected despite the fact that it often sees an average turnout of 20 percent. Its referendums are not legally binding but of consultative nature. But in a country where awareness is relatively poor, a low turnout will suffer a legitimacy problem,” Lin said.

Lin said a high threshold does not necessarily resolve legitimacy problems either, as it could result from a mobilization of people against the topic who would otherwise not vote.

Looking at the case of Penghu, “you can clearly see political calculation in all this,” Lin said.

“The threshold exception was made as it was foreseen that the turnout could be low and having no threshold would favor pro-casino forces: the government, business groups and politicians who are more capable of mobilization than the opposition,” Lin said.

In 2003 before the Referendum Law was promulgated, Penghu County Government organized a consultative referendum on the issue, which saw a turnout of just 20.5 percent, with the “yes” vote garnering 57 percent of ballots cast, while 43 percent voted “no.”

Saturday’s poll result was no surprise to Yeh Chih-kuei (葉智魁), a professor of sports and leisure studies at the Graduate Institute of Tourism & Recreation at National Dong Hwa University.

Having studied the issue since it was proposed by former KMT lawmaker Chen Kwei-miew (陳癸淼) in 1992, Yeh said “many Penghu residents had shown their concern.”

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