Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Referendum Reforms Finally passed

At the Taichung Train Station, the buttons on the automated ticket machines have Vietnamese labels for the foreign workers.

David Spencer, the fine writer over at Taiwan News who succeeded me in writing commentaries, asks the question that all of us are asking: will the new changes empower the young?
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.
The new law makes the following changes to national level referendums:
Under the newly amended law, an initiative to launch the first stage of a referendum will only require 0.01 percent of total eligible voters who participated in the most recent presidential election, as opposed to the 0.1 percent that was required to pass this first hurdle. In the case of the 2016 presidential election, that would be 1,879.

For the second stage of such a plebiscite to succeed, it now only requires 1.5 percent of those eligible to vote in the presidential election, as opposed to 5 percent previously. This translates to 280,000 people from the 2016 presidential election.

As for the third and final stage of a referendum, only a majority of 25 percent of eligible voters must agree to the act as opposed to the previous 50 percent. This would be the equivalent to 4.69 million of the voters from the past presidential race.
Under the previous law, which the KMT erected to prevent referendums from being successful, the law required that 50 percent of eligible voters must vote. Since the KMT could mobilize 40% of the vote, and many eligible people do not vote, it could easily cause any referendum to fail simply by ordering its people to not vote on it, as actually occurred. This law was derisively referred to as the "birdcage" referendum by DPPers, since it did not permit a vote on independence to ever occur.

However, the new law does not permit such votes either. Rather than troll Beijing and give our US friends ulcers, the legislation places changes in the nation's territory, flag, and name off limits to referendums.

This move was deprecated by some observers in private discussion groups, who argued that the new law removes a powerful soft power weapon: the ability of the Taiwanese to declare in a free and fair vote that they do not want to be part of China.

The low thresholds are a double edged sword. On the one hand, it means that anti-democracy groups in Taiwan's society can game the law to cause problems with divisive referendums. That is what I expect, sadly. On the other, it means that the referendum law can be used by groups with small but important issues to at least get attention.

It could also have serious ramifications for international affairs even without the independence possibilities, as a friend pointed out to me. For example, the ractopork issue remains on the burner, since the US insists on poisoning Taiwan with ractopamine-infused pork imports that will decimate Taiwan's farmers, and Taiwan would rather not have either of those. Imagine what would happen to relations with the US if there were a referendum on the issue -- the public would likely vote to ban ractopork, and the US would not be happy. Similarly, food imports from Fukushima in Japan are a contentious issue. For that reason, I expect the KMT to start raising these issues.

The KMT struggled to get an absentee ballot system included in the bill, but the DPP shelved that. The reasons are simple: no ballot coming from the tens of thousands living in China would be trustworthy, and incorporating such ballots would cast doubt on any election. Which is why the KMT wants that, of course. The DPP simply set the issue aside indefinitely.

Despite its flaws, this is a major step forward for Taiwan. Kudos to the DPP for finally getting it passed.
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Jenna Cody said...

On the other hand, the KMT consistently benefits from the DPP’s southern supporters working in northern Taiwan (more of them here than northerners in the south) deciding not to take crowded and often sold-out trains home to vote and not being able to vote absentee (I think in theory they can register where they live. In practice few do for a number of reasons).

Jenna Cody said...

On the other hand, a lack of absentee ballot options benefits the KMT in that DPP southerners working in the north are less likely to take crowded and often sold-out trains back to vote, and there are more of them than northerners in the south.

I think in theory one can register where one actually lives, but for a variety of reasons few do.

Michael Turton said...

Yes, but i think it is fear of the china vote, and ballot stuffing in general. And the general weirdness... Imagine how confused things would get with parents voting for children, company officials collecting chops and then voting for all their employees....

Anonymous said...

...and Indonesian labels below.

Jenna Cody said...

Oh yeah no I totally get it, I just also think these problems, which cause the DPP to not support absentee voting, have the inadvertent effect of screwing them in the backdoor. Ahem.

I also wonder if the KMT cared about absentee voting, why didn't they make it happen back when they had power?

Zla'od said...

Can the referendum be used to change the referendum law?

What does the text specifically say about changes to the flag? There's the flag design as mentioned in the ROC Constitution (white sun, blue sky, red field), and then there's the Flag Law (which specifies the actual design and dimensions). Are both of these protected?

What is this second stage of the referendum process?

Zla'od said...

Can a referendum be used to alter the referendum law?

Does it explicitly rule out changing the flag, or only changing the part of the ROC Constitution that covers the flag? (The Constitution describes the flag very vaguely, most of the details--which demand that the sun look like the KMT symbol--come from the Flag Law, not the Constitution.)

I don't understand what the second stage is for.

Michael Turton said...

Probably can alter the law via referendum. Or legislature. This isn't permanent.