Recent amendments to the Referendum Act and the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act have taken Taiwan one step closer to achieving direct democracy. Alison Hsiao explains the changes made to the former and shows why some issues remain off-limit.
Direct democracy has made strides in Taiwan in the past year, with significant changes made by recent amendments to the Referendum Act (公民投票法) and the Civil Servants Election and Recall Act (公職人員選舉罷免法). By this process, both acts saw the thresholds lowered and technical barriers removed or lessened, which has garnered applause but also created new challenges.
Referendum Act in a birdcage
The Legislative Yuan passed amendments to the Referendum Act on Dec. 12, 2017, unshackling the law from what some referred to as a “birdcage.” The birdcage was mainly due to the law’s “double one-half threshold,” whereby a national referendum could pass only if the number of voters who participated reached at least 50 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election (thereafter simply “electorate”), and at least 50 percent of those who voted did so in favor of the referendum question. Failure to reach either of those conditions would automatically mean that the people have vetoed the referendum question.
Critics had long argued that referendum questions and campaigns could be manipulated to secure the easy rejection of an argument, since failure to even reach the initial threshold — a 50 percent voter turnout — would mean that the proposal is rejected.
For example, a question could be phrased by those who did not want to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant as whether voters want to stop construction of the nuclear power plant (as opposed to whether they want to continue construction). As the 50-percent voter turnout can hardly be reached in a non-election vote in Taiwan, the referendum proposers could win their case by campaigning against casting the vote at all, or, if they did not want to be too brazen, by simply not campaigning.
Threshold to threshold
However, there were hurdles to cross before even getting to the double one-half threshold.
The group/person that proposed to hold a national referendum would need to demonstrate they have the support (in the form of signatures) of at least 0.5 percent of the electorate in the last presidential election (approximately 94,000) in order for that referendum proposal to be sent to the Referendum Review Commission for official appraisal. The Commission has the power to decide whether a proposal can stand. Prior to the amendment, the Act stipulated that the “matters subject to referendum shall be recognized by the Referendum Review Commission.” (The Commission has historically turned down several proposals amid disputes (1)(2).) Only after the Commission gave the green light could a referendum proposal proceed to the second stage of signature collection needed for a referendum to take place. The number of signatures for the second-stage signature drive had to reach 5 percent of the electorate (approximately 940,000).
Besides the sheer number of signatures involved which was said to contribute immensely to the technical barrier, the Referendum Review Commission was also at the center of controversy due to questions over its impartiality (the Commission members were nominated by the Executive Yuan) and its constitutionality (the Commission had substantive power to restrict people’s right to direct democracy).
‘A new page in Taiwan’s democratic development’
The amendments passed in mid-December scrapped the “double one-half threshold,” lowered the number of signatures required, and abolished the Referendum Review Commission (see Table 1 below).
According to the amended law, only 0.01 percent of the electorate’s (approximately 1,879) signatures are now needed for a proposal to be handed to the Central Election Commission, which is now the competent authority in charge of ensuring that matters to be put to a vote comply with the Act. The second-stage signature collecting now needs signatures by only 1.5 percent of that electorate (approximately 280,000) to initiate a referendum.
A referendum is passed when the number of those who voted yes to a referendum question is greater than that of those voted no, and when the former accounts for more than a quarter of the electorate (approximately 4.695 million).
Once a referendum has taken place, regardless of the result, the same referendum item cannot be put to a vote again within two years.
Other major changes include the lowering of the referendum voting age from 20 to 18; allowing the Executive Yuan (with the approval of the Legislative Yuan) to put its policy proposals to a national referendum; and directives that the Central Election Commission set up an electronic system to facilitate the process of signature collecting.
The People Rule Foundation, founded and led by former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman Lin I-hsiung, who has long advocated for amendments to the Referendum Act, called the changes “a new page in Taiwan’s democratic development” as “people rule” can now be further substantiated.
But Foundation chief executive officer Liu Ming-hsin said the amendments have only met “90 percent of the [foundation’s] expectation.” The “10 percent disappointment,” Liu said, was the exclusion of “territorial change” as a possible referendum item.
ROC territorial change
Despite the relaxed rules in the amended Referendum Act, the legislature voted to exclude constitutional amendments as items that can be put to a national referendum. Parties had had exchanged heated words on the matter since 2016, when proposals to amend the Act were first tabled.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintained that since there are already rules governing amendments to the Constitution in the Additional Articles of the Constitution of the Republic of China (中華民國憲法增修條文), there was no need to include them in the Referendum Act, with DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yi calling the Referendum Act merely a “procedural law.”
New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Huang Kuo-chang, however, pointed out that since the Additional Articles of the Constitution state that the alteration of the national territory should go through a referendum (Article 1), the Referendum Act as a procedural law should not exclude constitutional amendments as possible referendum items. The main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) stood with the DPP on excluding those.
The issue of changing the Republic of China (ROC) boundary has been the object of contention as it hits a raw nerve among many who fear that the territorial claims upheld by the ROC since 1947 — which encompass territory that is larger than what the People’s Republic of China rules and claims — or the ROC’s “inherent” territorial boundary as stated in the ROC Constitution, could be altered if this were put to a referendum. Conversely, by making the territorial boundary stipulated in the Constitution coterminous with that of what is under Taiwan’s current effective rule, which would include Taiwan, the Pescadores, Kinmen and Matsu, Taiwan’s de jure independence (without changing the name of the country) could, according to some, be achieved.
The NPP caucus had also demanded that cross-Strait political negotiations be put in the Act as a referendum item, requiring initiatives for cross-Strait political talks be put to a referendum before any negotiations between the two governments can take place. The NPP’s proposal did not receive majority approval in the legislature.
The NPP and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) have each since proposed and collected the needed number of signatures to pass the first-stage threshold to call a referendum on overturning amendments to the Labor Standards Act, which was also passed recently on Jan. 10 amid controversy and protests.
One other group that has hitched the wagon to the new referendum law was the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance, an anti-same-sex-marriage alliance, which has collected enough signatures and passed the first-stage signature threshold at the end of January for its proposal to define marriage as strictly the union between a man and a woman, this despite a groundbreaking Constitutional Interpretation in May 2017. On Jan. 31, the group announced it had successfully collected more than 3,000 signatures for a referendum proposal that aims to make revisions to gender equality education.
For both issues, there is no easy way through the CEC, which has now taken over the responsibility of reviewing proposals from the now-defunct Referendum Review Commission.
On Feb. 1 the CEC announced that the referendum proposals tabled by the NPP and the anti-gay-marriage group must first be referred to public hearings for clarification on the wording of the proposals before the CEC determines whether the proposals are valid. The NPP called on the CEC not to create technical barriers to stall their proposal, adding that there were no ambiguities or contradictions in its proposal. The Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance convener said they were not surprised about the CEC’s announcement, as the issues have generated much public debate.
The surge in proposals is the result of the expectation that the referendum(s) could be held alongside the nine-in-one local elections on Nov. 24 this year.
Feature image: From Flickr CC BY 2.0.