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Taiwan's referendums steeped in irony

Voters to make decisions Saturday on pork imports, energy policy, algal reefs, and future referendums

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KMT hosts a parade in Kaohsiung to promote its 4-vote referendum initiatives. 

KMT hosts a parade in Kaohsiung to promote its 4-vote referendum initiatives.  (CNA photo)

Since the early 1990s, there has been one clear distinction between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP): The KMT views Taiwan as part of China, and the DPP doesn’t.

While the details may change, in the main this distinction has held firm. When it comes to domestic politics, however, irony reigns.

The DPP has long championed referendums as an expression of the people’s will. Swept into power in 2016 with both the presidency, and for the first time with a legislative majority to back it up, the DPP set about lowering the thresholds required for referendums to both be put on the ballot and to pass.

Previously, the bar had been set so high referendums had never come close to passing, but in 2017 the DPP passed legislation making it easy to get an issue on the ballot and reduce the passing threshold to 25% of the electorate voting "yes" — with the ‘"yes" vote outnumbering the "no" vote.

This backfired spectacularly on the DPP in 2018. Unsurprisingly — though curious the DPP didn’t foresee this — the referendums proposed were directly in opposition to the policies and plans of the DPP-led government. This presented an opportunity for the KMT to discredit the DPP, which it did, by eagerly jumping on board and supporting the referendums.

Simultaneously, the KMT was buoyed by the “Han wave” of support sweeping the country, energized by a charismatic KMT candidate, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). He was improbably running to win the office of mayor in the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung.

Sweep to power

Come election day, not only did Han and most of the KMT candidates sweep the local elections, the majority of the referendum items also passed. This delivered a public rebuke to the DPP plans on, among other things, nuclear power and same-sex marriage.

Chastened by this loss, and now clearly aware of how referendums will naturally be geared toward the opposition of whichever government happens to be in power, the DPP faced a quandary. Raising the now low threshold that they themselves enacted would not have looked good.

As a result, they passed legislation decoupling referendums from general elections, moving referendum votes to "off" years in the month of August. This was proposed by the DPP under the rationale that the long lines and delays caused by combining the referendums with the general election were confusing to voters and logistically complicated.

Critics suggested that by moving it to the hottest, most humid month of the year, with no other reason to go out and vote, this was intended to reduce voter turnout. This year, the pandemic caused the referendum to be delayed to Dec.18.

The four referendum items on the agenda this year are full of irony. The first, R17, proposes to restart construction on the fourth nuclear power plant. Originally planned under the KMT and opposed by the DPP, the project was reaffirmed under the DPP government of former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

In spite of being nearly complete, faced with political opposition, significant delays, cost overruns, and a long list of safety concerns, the project was mothballed by KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Incoming President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) agreed and reverted to the earlier DPP stance of a nuclear-free homeland.

The KMT, in spite of its own administration having made the decision to shut it down, is now fully behind the project and encouraging the public to vote "yes."

Pork-barrel politics

The second, R18, aims to overturn President Tsai’s decision to allow the import of U.S. pork containing the additive ractopamine. This referendum was proposed by KMT lawmaker Lin Wei-chou (林為洲) and is solidly backed by the party.

In order to boost ties with the U.S., the Ma administration allowed the import of beef containing ractopamine. His attempt to allow pork with the additive was eventually abandoned in the face of public pressure over food safety concerns and opposition from then-DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen.

R19, proposed by former KMT Chair Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), aims to once again tie referendum votes to general elections. This has been enthusiastically taken up by the current chair Eric Chu (朱立倫), putting the KMT in the historically odd position of defending the DPP’s old position on referendum timing.

It also appears the KMT has missed the lesson that if they ever return to power, the opposition will use this against them in precisely the same way as they are using the referendums against the Tsai administration. Either that, or they are assuming they will be in permanent opposition...

The final referendum, proposed by an environmentalist, calls for a halt to plans on building a natural gas terminal off the coast of Taoyuan to protect fragile algal reefs. The government responded by coming up with a plan to move the terminal farther out to sea and away from the reefs.

It has also enlisted other environmentalists, pointing out that natural gas is a necessary transition fuel to end Taiwan’s dependence on coal while transitioning to renewable power. This pits the KMT and DPP against each other in a fight to claim the mantle of "most environmental" party.

Power problems

This has created some internal complications in the KMT, as much of its support in central Taiwan has come from efforts by local KMT leaders to shut down the coal-fired units at the massive Taichung Power Plant that is the largest stationary source of air pollution in the country (and one of the largest in the world).

So, the loss of the gas terminal would not only ensure that central Taiwan’s air would continue to be polluted by the existing coal-fire units, some already shut down units might have to be re-started.

Turnout will be the first hurdle determining if the referendums pass. This being the first "off-season" referendum vote under the new rules, there aren’t direct precedents to look at for a good estimate as to how turnout may play out.

Polling suggests a turnout in the 50s, but the recall vote turnouts and the difficulties many voters face returning to their home districts to vote would suggest a turnout in the 40s is more likely. If the turnout is in the low 40s, that will put a high bar on any referendum passing. If, on the other hand, it is in the high 50s then there is a significant chance of one or more making the cut.

Polling shows strong support for a "yes" vote on not allowing ractopamine pork into the country, which is unsurprising considering the history of food safety scandals in the country. On the algal reef vote, it looks close but is leaning towards a "no" vote.

The other two could easily go either way, with much depending on how well the major parties have made their case in the last couple of weeks and the effectiveness of their get-out-the-vote efforts.

Dodging bullets

The only scenario where either party could legitimately claim victory is if the turnout is high enough for a strong mandate, and all the votes go their way in a clean sweep. If that doesn’t happen, which is very possible, then the question is not which party will be damaged but which party will be the most damaged.

The picture is a bit clearer on the DPP side. If the turnout threshold isn’t passed, they will have dodged the bullet — but that will underscore a lack of enthusiasm on their side for their agenda.

If, on the other hand, the turnout is high and the public backs the KMT’s call to vote "yes" on all four, then the DPP will be in the awkward position of backing plans that are in opposition to a public vote. Or, it will back the public’s call and upend the KMT agenda and betray its base, especially on the nuclear-free homeland and transition to renewable energy.

If, as looks possible, it is a mixed vote with the restarting of the fourth nuclear power plant endorsed by voters, the damage will come from having to either ignore or slow-walk restarting the plant. At this point, with the fuel rods already sent back out of the country and restarting the plant expected to take a decade or more, it is unlikely the plant will ever be revived.

The KMT is probably more at risk of taking damage than the DPP. The KMT brass has thrown itself full-in on getting a "yes" vote on all four. Even in the best-case scenario, this has already caused rifts within the party.

The most popular figure in the party by a wide margin, New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), has openly bucked the party line and on Facebook issued a call for voters to make up their own minds based on the facts. In the past, he has expressed opposition to the fourth nuclear plant, which would be based in the city he represents. Hou has also expressed some opposition to ractopamine pork.

Greenwashing

The KMT's stance has also created a political trap for Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕). She has made a name for herself as a fearless fighter for improving air quality in Taichung. If the algal reef referendum passes, at the very least plans to phase out coal-fired units at the Taichung Power Plant will be halted.

It is very likely already idle units will need to be re-activated to send power up north. This would be disastrous for Lu politically. Publicly, she has endorsed the party line but, significantly, she has refused to join any rallies in support, even in her own city.

That means that even if the KMT scores a clean-sweep victory, Eric Chu and KMT party unity look weak. In spite of being by far the biggest heavyweight to run and the clear front-runner, Chu won the KMT chair race with less than 50% of the vote after a surprise surge by deep-blue candidate Chang Ya-chung (張亞中).

Starting weak, the defection of Hou and the partial defection of Lu and others is threatening to undermine his authority. Should the result turn out mixed he will look weak and ineffectual, and if the result goes largely against the party, he will face calls to resign.

If that happens, and he doesn’t resign, he will have trouble asserting authority over an already fractured party, which would spell trouble in next year’s local elections. If he does resign, this opens up the possibility that the deep-blue Chang could be the front-runner to replace him.

This would put the party so far out of the mainstream of public opinion they will face even greater challenges at the polls.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.


Updated : 2022-05-17 19:01 GMT+08:00