Rejection of referendum is a denial of democratic rights

The Referendum Review Committee last night rejected the Taiwan Solidarity Union’s (TSU) proposal for a referendum on ECFA. The Liberty Times (自由時報) called it “the darkest day in the history of Taiwan’s democracy.” It represents another regression in the democratic rollback since the Ma government took office in 2008.

The ability of citizens in Taiwan to initiate a referendum was already restricted by the “birdcage” 2003 Referendum Law. The law imposes an unfairly high threshold of votes which means a referendum vote can be blocked by a boycott of voters even if the total number of votes in favour exceeds 50 percent.

For example, in the referendums held in conjunction with the 2008 presidential election the vote was overwhelming in favor but the referendums failed to pass because they didn’t meet the threshold. There were 5,881,589 valid votes cast for the question whether Taiwan should join the UN as Taiwan and 94.01% voted yes. On the question of whether Taiwan should return to the UN using the “Republic of China”, “Taiwan” or some other name there were 5,686,369 valid votes cast with 87.27% in favor (Wikipedia). Remember the latter question was proposed by the KMT who later boycotted the very same referendum. Hence the current law effectively means that the team that boycotts or forfeits gets awarded the win. It is fundamentally unfair.

The TSU is now planning another referendum initiative to abolish the Referendum Review Committee. It is clear that the review process is flawed and easily manipulated by partisan interests. However, the resources of the TSU and other civil society groups promoting referendums are limited. They must think carefully about the strategy that they take to further promote the use of referendums by Taiwan’s citizens.

I suggest that rather than abolishing the review committee the TSU follow the suggestion of Bruno Kaufmann of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe to have a referendum on the Referendum Law. The aim of this referendum should be to abolish the currently unfair threshold. This referendum should be held in conjunction with the 2012 presidential election when it would have the best chance of getting enough valid votes to pass.

The rejection of the referendum is part of an ongoing pattern of human rights going backwards under the Ma/KMT administration. There is more evidence of this in the past few day from independent non-partisan organisations outside Taiwan. The Congressional Research Service in the US released a report that raised concerns about the state of democracy in Taiwan under the Ma government. Amnesty International issued a statement from its Hong Kong office expressing disappointment at the Council of Grand Justices decision to reject a petition to halt the executions of inmates currently on death row.

If the people of Taiwan want to protect their democracy and civil rights they must use the end of year “five municipalities” election and the 2012 legislative and presidential elections to elect representatives that will promote and safeguard Taiwan’s democracy. It is also essential that civil society groups and the opposition parties work together to achieve reforms of the Referendum Law to ensure that the right to referendum is ensured no matter which party is in power.