This has been a hugely significant week for Taiwanese democracy. As hundreds of millions of people across the Taiwan Strait wake up to another day of state oppression from the Communist regime that denies them any kind of meaningful say on the governance of their country, in Taiwan more people than ever before are now enfranchised to have a say in their country’s future.
That is because this week this Legislative Yuan passed the Government’s Referendum Act (公民投票法), which lowered the age that people can vote in referendums from 21 to 18. In doing so, it handed a sizable number of young people in Taiwan the opportunity to vote on issues which are likely to affect their lives far more than those of the older generations.
Taiwan’s democracy is crucial to the country in so many ways. It helps Taiwan to stand out in a part of the world where truly democratic nations are hard to find. It is a norm which links Taiwan to the USA, and the rest of the western world, and as such, it is also vital to national security as the US in particular strives to protect one of its few regional democratic allies.
As such anything which strengthens and reinforces Taiwan’s democracy is to be applauded.
Can this change pre-empt a shift of power to the young?
This new change in the law is important on a domestic level too. In Taiwan, as in many other Asian nations, too much power and influence is kept in the hands of older generations. The culture of respect for elders is frequently turned on its head with contempt being shown to young people for having the temerity to express an opinion.
This attitude continues to hold back many areas of Taiwanese life and act as a barrier to change. In business. Far too many Taiwanese companies are still controlled by executives and boards who should have long since handed the reigns over to the next generation. This is also true in politics, particularly for the KMT party.
The result is that businesses (and the KMT) have failed to evolve to keep pace with market changes and technological advances. Taiwan’s economy suffers as a result of this, while the KMT continues to retain policy positions that are hugely out-of-step with the viewpoints of most younger Taiwanese people.
A culture shift on this matter is long overdue and it is just possible that this piece of legislation could be the catalyst. Empowering young people to vote on issues gives them a greater voice in Taiwan’s future and may encourage more to become politically engaged. But more is needed.
The voting age for elections in Taiwan is currently 20, which is higher than most other established democracies. 18 is the norm in most countries, with some democracies even allowing voting as young as 16. Taiwan should be seeking to lead the way in Asia and dropping the voting age for all elections to 18 or even 16. This would be a very positive move.
The current DPP government would seem well placed to do this given that their voter base is far younger than their principal rivals, the KMT, and their policy positions far more appealing to a younger demographic.
Referendums are now easier to trigger
The Referendum Act also lowered the threshold of voter support which is needed to initiate a referendum. This places an even greater degree of control over the country’s future in the hands of the people. To launch the first stage of a referendum will now require the support of just 0.01% of eligible voters. More importantly, to get to the final stage of the referendum process now requires just 25% of voters to support the move, rather than the 50% as was previously required.
Of course, such a move does come with inherent risks. The word referendum is rarely uttered in Taiwan without being preceded by the word independence. And regardless of the outcome of such a vote, even holding such a referendum is likely to provoke a strong result from the Communist aggressors across the water.
As I have written previously in discussing the impact of the independence referendum in Catalonia, it would be highly inadvisable for Taiwan to go down this road. Taiwan is already an independent nation by all definitions of the term. It has a democratically elected government, its own legal system, its own tax system, its own currency, its own military, and its own territorial boundaries.
Holding a referendum on independence would needlessly put all of this at risk given the likely response from China to such a move. But it would also imply that Taiwan needs to formally declare independence in order to be an independent nation. It is already an independent nation and such a move is totally unnecessary.
However, there are a myriad of domestic issues for which referendums could be used by the people to express their views on issues which affect their everyday lives. Subjects such as pollution, aboriginal rights, transitional justice, and the death penalty trigger strong opinions in Taiwanese people and are the sorts of policy areas where referendums could be used to give people a direct say in the political direction the country takes.
Direct democracy enhances Taiwan
Despite Taiwan being a relatively young democracy, there is already a sense of cynicism in many Taiwanese voters. The perception that politicians are corrupt, out-of-touch, and not acting in the interests of the people is already well established. And there is some justification to that viewpoint.
But this is not a reason to scale back democracy. When that happens, as can be seen in places like Turkey and Russia, democratic freedoms begin to ebb away and dictatorship soon follows.
What is needed is more democracy not less. In the UK, where there is a huge cynicism about politicians, the last seven years has seen three general elections and two referendums and there are now more people politically engaged than ever before.
Taiwan needs to keep people engaged in its democracy and it is, therefore, to be hoped that the Referendum Act is the start of that. Suffrage at a younger age and more direct democracy is to be encouraged. But pushing towards an independence referendum would be an act of supreme folly.