Observations of the Penghu referendum

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The Penghu casino referendum was held on Saturday. I went to observe the referendum as part of the team organised by Citizen Congress Watch (公民監督國會聯盟). I’ll first report on the observation of the referendum voting followed by some analysis of the results of the referendum and its political implications.

The observation team was split into five groups to observe the voting in different districts of Penghu. I went with Professor Yeh Chih-kuei to observe the voting in Baisha Township (白沙鄉). Between 7:30am to 4:45pm we observed six different polling booths.

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The photo above shows an early voter waiting for voting to start. A single police officer was assigned to watch over each polling booth. Only voters and officials were permitted to enter the polling booth while voting was in progress. At all of the polling booths we visited there was a clear view of everything from the door. Everybody seemed quite comfortable with us standing near the door and observing proceedings. A few people asked us about what we were doing out of curiosity.

Photography and video recording is prohibited within 30 metres of a polling station during the voting period from 8:00am to 4:00pm. All the photos here were taken before and after the the voting period. In practice the media is allowed to do some recording while voting is in progress. A crew from PTS accompanied us and while they were permitted to record at one polling booth, another one didn’t allow them to do any recording.

At each of the polling booths the number of registered voters was a few hundred. Voters slowly trickled in throughout the day, but there were never any significant queues. As voters only had to take a single ballot paper the voting process was quite quick. In my observation at all the polling booths the voting was carried out in an efficient and orderly manner. There were never any problems such as campaign materials displayed outside the polling booths or people hanging around outside who could potentially be monitoring voters.

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Finally at 4:00pm voting was closed and we were able to enter the polling booth to watch the vote count. The vote count began promptly. As there was only a single ballot paper recording “agree” or “disagree” it didn’t take long to count a few hundred votes. One person holds up the ballots and shouts out the result, while another person calls back while tallying the votes.

After observing the vote count at two polling booths we went to the Baisha Township Office (白沙鄉公所) to see the votes being tallied. The overall vote in Baisha Township was in favour of the casino. This may be because the township contains one of the proposed casino sites. While driving back to Magong several phone calls came through confirming the result — the referendum failed to pass.

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The scene at the Catholic Church hall where the Penghu Anti-casino Alliance held their press conference was jubilant. A diverse coalition of Penghu residents had worked hard to defeat the referendum while the county government had strongly promoted casino development.

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On Sunday a morning there was a press conference to report the results of the referendum observation team. Overall all the observers gave a very positive assessment of the voting process. Some small suggestions were made for improvement. For example, a single police officer was assigned to each polling booth for the entire day. It might be better to have two officers or for there to be a regular change of shifts to allow the police officers time to rest.

Being able to observe the voting process was very insightful and affirmed that people can have trust in Taiwan’s electoral system. I can only make comparisons with my experience voting in Australia, but the referendum vote in Penghu seemed to have been conducted to similar standards.

The final results of the referendum were 17,359 disagreed with the casino plan, while 13,397 agreed. In percentage terms 56.4% disagreed while 43.6% agreed. The voter turnout was 42%. The low voter turnout is perhaps the most disappointing aspect. It means many people still feel disengaged from the political process.

The failure of the referendum to pass marks a victory of people power over political parties. The anti-casino campaign on Penghu brought together a diverse range of groups united by their opposition to the casino. They stood against the Penghu County Government, politicians and corporations who sought to promote the casino as the only way to boost Penghu’s economy.

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On Sunday evening PTS (公共電視) recorded a talk show in front of the Mazu Temple in Magong. The panel had four speakers: two local politicians, an academic who didn’t make clear his position on casinos and Professor Yeh Chih-kuei (葉智魁) of National Dong Hwa University who is Taiwan’s leading expert on casinos and gambling.

The panel unfortunately lacked balance and highlighted a potential problem that Penghu may face in the future. The two local politicians were extremely negative and continually pushed two points: (1) that if Penghu didn’t build a casino its residents would suffer and (2) that outsiders had opposed the casino and were preventing Penghu from prospering. These arguments seem to form a key pattern of those promoting casinos. They ignore the negative aspects of casinos and fail to consider alternative ways for Penghu to develop.

I think the referendum result has shown that people in Penghu are not going to be so easily fooled by such poorly constructed arguments. These local politicians also do not necessarily represent the view of all those who voted in favour of the casino either. I heard several of the Penghu anti-casino activists say that even people who had voted for the casino congratulated them and realised they all had to work together in the future. If the people of Penghu can unite together as they did in the anti-casino campaign and develop a clear vision for Penghu’s future then there are many things Penghu can do to develop its tourism industry and wind power. The greatest danger is that if people perceive that Penghu is not improving then the pro-casino forces may use this as a wedge to push for a casino again in the future.

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9 thoughts on “Observations of the Penghu referendum

  1. Very thorough report David, well done. I’m curious – does that mean casino’s are forever rejected from Penghu, or are we likely to see a different proposal put forth in the future sometime in an attempt to get them built? (Future being next few years rather than decades).

  2. cfimages, according to the law they must wait three years before holding another referendum on the issue in Penghu. However, I suspect they will try to develop casinos at other locations now. Kinmen and Green Island are the ones being talked about.

  3. I don’t understand why there is a need to have police officers around polling stations.

    Here in Germany, there was reportedly increased police presence at railway stations (I saw two officers in front of Karlsruhe main station …).

    But if they had put police in front of polling stations, many voters would have felt intimidated, I guess. (I would have a bit, too, but of course it would not have influenced my vote.)

  4. Jens, all the police officers I observed maintained neutrality and I don’t think anyone would have felt intimidated by them. Whether their presence is necessary is perhaps something that needs to be considered. While everything in Penghu went smoothly during the referendum there may be other times or places in Taiwan where there are still problems that necessitate police presence.

  5. Nicely put together David!

    Do you know how far along the Kinmen pro-casino group is on bringing about referendum vote?

    Lastly, I think one side effect if the casinos referendums do not pass anywhere in Taiwan is that the Taiwan will lose one supporter in the US Congress. (Shelley Berkley D-NV)

  6. “all the police officers I observed maintained neutrality”

    Yes, I do not question that.

    Seeing police here would cause “OMG, Al Qaida is coming, I have to vote for Schäuble.” Or “OMG, Al Qaida is coming, I better stay at home and don’t vote.”

  7. taipeimarc, they are still gathering signatures for the referendum in Kinmen. Although it is quite likely the referendum will go ahead, there is also a good chance it will be defeated. The Kinmen County Government has a neutral attitude to the issue and I don’t think China will be happy about a casino being built so close by.

  8. I hope they will open casinos in Kinmen and Matsu. There’s a lot of illegal activities going on anyway. It would simply legalize of what is going on there anyway on the offshore Fujian islands of the Fujian province.

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