By: Jens Kastner

Taiwan on Nov. 24 is about to become the undisputed world champion in direct democracy – if there were such a title – with nine referendums in one go on the ballot following the passage of amendments cutting the threshold for by-the-people legislation. 

Voters in the island-wide local government elections are to receive ballot papers on questions ranging from legitimization of safe-sex marriage to cutting the electricity output of thermal power plants to forcing use exclusively of the island’s name in international sporting events to teaching gender education in the schools to barring the import of seafood caught near the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan to more frivolous pursuits.

KMT caught red-handed

While the outcomes obligate the government to do its utmost to fulfill the will of the voters, the run-up process has been rife with fraud, with the main opposition party, the Kuomintang, having got caught submitting thousands of signatures that actually belong to dead people.

Calculated in percentages of the 12-million voter electorate in the most recent presidential poll, the latest amendments to the Referendum Act effectively lowered the number of signatures required to initiate referendums from around 90,000 to around 1,800. The number of signatures required to pass the next stage has effectively been reduced from around 1 million to around 280,000.

Thus a voter-approved island-wide referendum could take effect with the support of as few as a quarter of eligible voters – about 5 million, or half the threshold required under the previous constrained referendum rules.

Although the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, in office since 2016, has fulfilled one of its core electoral promises with this sweeping reform, it notably maintained the old stipulation that constitutional issues remain off-limits, ruling out a referendum on the formal declaration of impendence from China. 

“The referendum reform clearly encourages more political outsiders to fight for their causes in the referendum process, and many groups immediately seized on this new opportunity to put their ballot proposals on the November ballot this year,” said Su Yen-tu, a Taipei-based law professor and expert on Taiwan’s democratic system.

Combating voter fatigue

“There certainly is the concern of voter fatigue and apathy, and there is some possibility that on election day many voters would walk away after casting their vote in the local elections without lining up a second time in order to collect their referendum ballots,” he added. 

Bruno Kaufmann, Global Democracy Correspondent for the Swiss Broadcasting Company, has recently visited Taiwan for exchanges with the Central Election Commission, which, he says, has so far impressively managed to keep a clear head in the face of the pressure.  

Kaufmann applauds Taiwan for now having the widest-reaching, most liberal referendum law in the whole of Asia, if not globally, and he contrasts it with that of the neighboring Philippines where certain amounts of signatures have to be collected in each of the country’s provinces to initiate a referendum.

However, Kaufmann points out that unlike Switzerland, where direct democracy has long been at work successfully, Taiwan’s initiatives and referendums don’t come with the requirement of a formulated legal text.

“In a highly partisan political system like that of Taiwan, where one party rules and the other ones are in opposition, proposing just general advice invites all kinds of political games and raises expectations that may not be possible to be realized by the government,” Kaufmann said.

“On the positive side, Taiwan has comprehensive financial disclosure regulations for initiatives and referendums in place, something still very much lacking in established democracies like Switzerland and Sweden,” he added.

China looks down its nose

It is no secret that China is not a friend of direct democracy, and it has been watching the latest developments with extreme suspicion. It frets the DPP would eventually amend the Referendum Act again, so as to fulfill the party founders’ dream of holding an independence referendum.

Firing a first warning shot as a punishment for the referendum on replacing the current name of the national team “Chinese Taipei” with “Taiwan,” Beijing in July made the East Asian Olympic Committee swiftly revoke Taiwan’s right to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.”

In the same context, China has made a host of countries cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the most recent examples being El Salvador, Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic.

And, fast backward to the earlier pages in the textbooks of cross-Strait politics, as a response to Taiwan passing its initial Referendum Act in 2003, China implemented the infamous Anti-Secession Law, stipulating war if the Taiwanese declared independence.

Cold-war context

Some observers are now seeing Taiwan’s referendum craze as firmly in the context of the old cross-Straits controversy.

“The referendums are being used as vehicles by which national sovereignty are asserted as Beijing continues to isolate Taiwan internationally,” said Wong Yiu-Chung, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

“The Taiwanese government wants to show that its policies are based on the consent of the people. Certainly, China does not like it but it is not able to stop Taiwan from doing so,” he added.

In the meantime, California, which pioneered the initiative and referendum process as a reform more than 100 years ago, is having serious misgivings over the whole process because it has been hijacked by moneyed interests who can afford to buy the 500,000 signatures required to put a measure on the ballot. In the meantime, the route has become cost-prohibitive to the ordinary citizen for whom it was designed in the first place.