TDB Vol. 2 No. 4: Taiwan Reforms its Referendum Laws — Opportunities and Challenges

TDB Vol. 2 No. 4: Taiwan Reforms its Referendum Laws — Opportunities and Challenges

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.

 

                                                                                                    Table 1

 

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.

Application

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.

See also: TDB Vol. 2. No. 2: Taiwan’s Tough Road to Labor Reform

Members of the opposition SDP set up booths to collect signatures to annul the latest amendments to the Labor Standards Act. (photo courtesy of the SDP official Facebook page)

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.

TDB Vol. 2. No. 2: Taiwan’s Tough Road to Labor Reform

After months of confrontation, withdrawal in protest from the New Power Party and opposition from the Chinese Nationalist Party in the legislature, amendments to the Labor Standards Act — the second round since May 2016 — were passed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party-led Legislative Yuan on Jan. 10. Alison Hsiao explains what the new laws entail.

Reform agenda

Amendments to the Labor Standards Act have been the object of heated debate since President Tsai Ing-wen assumed office in May 2016. During her election campaign, Tsai had proposed “six major labor policies” — reducing total working hours, reversing the trend of low wages, supporting employment for all generations, legislating protections for individuals with atypical work, guaranteeing protections against overwork and occupational injuries, and shaping a fair employment relationship. Since her inauguration, people have closely monitored and tracked how well her administration has done to make good those promises.

With Taiwan’s economy faltering, the wealth gap widening, wages stagnating for nearly two decades and a work environment that had not changed for several years, the need for reform was evident and especially welcome among the younger generations.

Amid partisan disagreement, on Dec. 16 last year the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led legislature passed amendments ensuring “one mandatory day off and one flexible rest day” every seven days (which labor rights groups protested were compromised by the reduction in the number of national holidays by seven). The new law also increased overtime pay for work on rest days and added annual leave days for younger employees with relatively few service years. (See Table 1 below)

On the anniversary of President Tsai’s inauguration, the Ministry of Labor conducted a “self-examination,” declaring that the administration has been making good progress in carrying out labor reform and calling the “one mandatory day off and one flexible holiday” measure “the most evident implementation of the administration’s pledge to lower working hours.”

Amendments to the amendments

The measures nevertheless met strong opposition from business leaders and those who claimed that the strict limitations set by the law deprived workers of the right to work more hours to earn overtime pay.

After Premier William Lai was sworn in, the Executive Yuan began mulling a response in September to the complaints concerning the “inflexibility” of the new rules by again amending the Labor Standards Act. On Nov. 9, it approved a series of proposed amendments that give more flexibility to various types of businesses.

The Legislative Yuan had since become a hotspot for protests outside and scuffles within. But still this did not stop the legislative committee from ramming through the review of the amendments on Dec. 4, sending them to the legislative floor for discussion and cross-caucus negotiations.

On Dec. 23, thousands of labor group and NGO members, activists and students took to the streets, raising placards which read “exhausted” and “end overworking” while accusing the ruling party of making an “about-face” and “betraying labor.” The protest occurred two days after the Cabinet called a press conference stressing that the revisions were made for exceptions, applicable only to industries or businesses that require flexibility and whose exemptions are approved by the government. Quoting a study conducted and published by the National Development Council (NDC) in cooperation with the Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research (CIER), in which both manufacturing and non-manufacturing industries have claimed that the “one mandatory day off and one flexible rest day” measure has negatively affected their operations and costs, Cabinet Spokesperson Hsu Kuo-yung underlined that the new amendments are to “both increase workers’ pay and facilitate a better operational environment for the businesses.”

The Dec. 23 march had been scheduled to end at 5pm, but a group of young protesters refused to disperse, and started a “night guerrilla tactic.” They hurtled around to be chased by the police and randomly stopped at crossroads to cause traffic congestion. The chase ended past midnight when police swarmed the Taipei Main Station East 3 Gate beleaguering the few remaining protesters, who in the end were, together with the lawyers who came to the protesters’ rescue, packed onto the police paddy wagon and “dumped” on the Taipei outskirts. The lawyers called a press conference in the small hours of Dec. 24 and accused police of infringing upon personal freedom and “grossly violating the law.”

An extraordinary legislative session was called for and began on Jan. 5 as the regular legislative session had ended on the last working day of 2017. The New Power Party (NPP) caucus, at the end of the first day of the extraordinary session, blocked the entrance by locking the doors of the legislative floor chamber with iron chains, while Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers, who reportedly also had planned to occupy the chamber, taking actions by stationing themselves outside the chamber with hundreds of amendment motions in an attempt to prevent DPP lawmakers from proposing the Labor Standards Act amendment bill. After the blockade ended 160 minutes later, the NPP legislators moved to the plaza in front of the Presidential Office and started a hunger strike.

Barbed-wire barricades and ad hoc restriction zone set by police around the Presidential Office since Jan. 5 have enraged activists. Some had taken the DPP to task for seemingly reneging on the stance it used to uphold on the Assembly and Parade Act, which was to relax the law and restrict its arbitrary use by the authorities.

On Jan. 8, civic and labor groups again protested outside the Legislative Yuan to pressure lawmakers, with some taking radical actions in hopes of raising further public attention. The NPP caucus, after being evicted from the front plaza of the Presidential Office in the early hours of the same morning, returned to the legislature but withdrew from the cross-caucus negotiations in protest.

Four Unchanged rules and Four Flexibilities’

On the afternoon of Jan. 9, the Legislative Yuan embarked on an 18-hour voting marathon. Legislators from the KMT staged a sit-in in the chamber, wearing headbands and spreading banners that read, “death of labor rights” and “shame of democracy,” while the NPP lawmakers walked out of the chamber all together and declared they would not to participate in any floor discussion and voting regarding the labor law.

The third reading of the amendments was completed on Jan. 10, giving flexibility for negotiations between unions and company management (between workers and management if no union exists) on matters regarding an overtime cap (the rule of 46 hours per month can be extended to 54 hours, although the three-month total of 138 hours remains unchanged), “one fixed day off and one rest day every seven days” (the rule stays but which day should be the fixed day off within the seven days can now be decided through union-management negotiations after government approval for some industries), and the hours of rest between shifts (11-hour-rest is the norm but exceptions could be made to reduce the rest hours to 8 and no less after union-management negotiations and with government approval). (See Table 1 below)

Also unchanged from the 2016 version of the amendments is the 40-hour workweek and overtime pay on rest days.

Infographic issued by the Ministry of Labor after the passage of the amendments. The ministry also released a statement refuting some of the Presidential Office’s Human Rights Consultative Committee members’ claims, published as an opinion piece in a major newspaper, which accused the latest labor law amendments of violating Article 7(d) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The ministry reiterated that the flexibilities allowed do not sanction overworking as there are conditions to be met and approved by the government. (Picture courtesy: Ministry of Labor)

According to the government, the amendments provide more flexibility with regards to overtime, work schedule arrangements, shift arrangements and annual leave usage.

After passage of the bill, Minister of Labor Lin Mei-chu said the rules are the rules, and that the “exceptions will definitely not become the rules.” Lin was responding to widespread fears that the “flexibility” given to certain industries under certain conditions could result in misuse and exploitation. “The intervals between workers’ rest are not to be reduced without government approval following applications for flexibility and exceptions,” Lin said, adding that the ministry would flesh out supporting measures and mechanisms for curbing violations before March 1, the day the amendments officially take effect.

 

Table 1 Labor Law Amendments

*Before the 2015 40-hour workweek amendment, many were already enjoying two-day weekends because the MOL had made an interpretation of the law in 1998 allowing employers and employees to reach an agreement on swapping “not working the 4 additional work hours every two weeks under the ‘84 hours for every two-week period’ model” for not having days off on the following seven holidays: January 2 (an extension of the New Year’s Day holiday), March 29 (Youth Day), September 28 (Teachers’ Day), October 25 (Taiwan Retrocession Day), October 31 (Chiang Kai-shek’s Birthday), November 12 (Sun Yat-sen’s Birthday), and December 25 (Constitution Day). But not all employers adopted the swapping measure.                                  **Government approval required                                                                                                                                                  *** When the compensatory/annual leaves are not used up, employers are still required to pay accordingly.

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