How Taiwan got one of world´s best direct democracy laws

The first European explorers from Portugal called this land simply Ilha Formosa, the beautiful island. Today, forest-cloaked and mountainous Taiwan is the home to more than 23 million people. Within a few years the island nation has become a (direct) democratic model state for an important part of the world: economically striving, politically ambitious and conflict-burdened East Asia.

It is just a calm and peaceful trickle that the Da´an river produces on this sunny spring day just outside the rural village of Yuying in Taiwan´s Heping district.

But there are times, we are told, when the large riverbed fills up and the rushing water transforms the idyllic valley into a wild gorge: "Then we have to take good care of our children", says an elderly lady at a local shared-kitchen facility.

We are on Tayan territory, home to one of Taiwan´s 16 indigenous nations and one of many hotspots that have propelled the island state into the champions league of modern democracy in recent years. (Tayan comes from "Ayatal" and means "true human". There are about 95´000 Tayans in Taiwan.)

From local referendum…

"Two years ago we conducted a referendum", explains principal Pilin Yapu, who welcomes us at the P´uma Elementary school: "Almost two third voted in favour of an experiment, to make this school the first in Taiwan with an indigenous-centered curriculum." Now, the students and their teachers work along a schedule, which in addition to universal core subjects like English, Chinese and maths includes traditional Tayan know-how like hunting, wine-making and tattoos. "During all those lessons we also speak Tayan, our very own language", adds principal Yapu.

While this school is for the moment just a pilot experiment, major reforms are underway in Taiwan´s education system. According to new proposals launched by the government, curriculums dating back to the military regime of Chiang Kai-shek shall be updated and modernised in order to better reflect modern challenges and needs. In the last 25 years Taiwan has quickly developed into a technologically advanced society with free and fair elections, leading to three peaceful transitions of power between the main political forces.

Help from the People´s Republic of China

"Today we are a very vibrant democracy with many new opportunities", says Mu-Min Chen, dean at the Office of International Affairs at the National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan´s second biggest city. As a sub-tropical territory, Taiwan has been ruled by foreign regimes including the Dutch, Manchus, Qing, Japanese and - after 1947 - the Chinese nationalists (KMT), who occupied the island after losing the Chinese civil war against the Communists.

Two years later the latter established the People´s Republic of China (PRC), now the world´s most populous country (1.4 billion people). But while the Taiwanese in democratic elections have been able to free themselves from the KMT (which is now an opposition party) the PRC still today threatens to occupy Taiwan by force. This unilateral policy by Beijing creates a lot of tensions in the region, underpins military spending, and hampers the participation of Taiwan in international organisations.

Twenty-two years ago, when the Taiwanese for the first time elected their president in a direct election, China tried to intimidate the voters by sending missiles into the waters around the island. If the intention was to slow down the Taiwanese appetite for more participatory democracy, then Beijing certainly contributed to the contrary: In the last two decades Taiwan not only established a robust election system, but also moved forward with direct democratic tools.

..to nationwide direct democracy

In 2003 the legislature adopted the first Referendum Act, allowing citizens to both initiate new laws (by initiative) and repeal existing ones by referendum. While this new law was welcomed and a series of nationwide, regional and local referendums were held, hurdles and procedures were far from user-friendly.

Finally, at the end of last year, the national parliament adopted new legislation for citizens´ initiatives, popular referendums and plebiscites. The law, says president Tsai Ing-wen – the country´s first female president, "returns the power to the people". The really good news is - and this I experienced during the Taiwan leg of my #ddworldtour this spring - that in this case, the government rhetoric of "returning power to the people" is actually backed by reality. Here is why.

Invitation to all citizens

"Our new framework invites the citizens to make their voices heard", said In-Chin Chen, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission, when he launched the new legislation in early January. The new Taiwanese direct democracy process has the following major features:

1)   Citizens have the right to propose new legislation, policies and principles (initiative) and repeal existing ones (referendum). Not allowed are initiatives and referendums (I&R) on budgetary issues.
2)   For qualifying an I&R process, at least 1,800 citizens need to sign a proposal by a so-called lead proponent (legal representative of the initiative or referendum), offering a title, proposed text and an explanation.
3)   The Central Election Commission (CEC), as the "competent authority" for I&R, assists the proponent in this initial qualification process by holding a public hearing, offering advice and also allowing proponents to gather additional signatures if necessary. The parliament and government are invited to add a position paper to the initiative or referendum.
4)   The time allowed to gather the necessary number of signatures - 1.5% of the eligible voters in the previous presidential election or about 280,000 names - is six months. However, after the end of this period, proponents again have the chance to fix incorrect signatures and gather additional ones if necessary.
5)   The new law defines clear times frames for all stakeholders in the process and also key rules for the campaigns ahead of a final popular vote. These guidelines include the transparency of finances, the possibility of gathering signatures electronically, implementation regulations and appeal rights.
6)   Under the new rules, a popular vote initiated by the citizens is binding, when a proposal gets the approval of at least 25% of the electorate. This is a major improvement from earlier regulations with a 50% turnout quorum, which invited opponents of a proposal to non-participation and boycott campaigns.

In a recent public conversation at the Central Election Commission in Taipei, I had the opportunity to share my assessments and comments on the new legislation and stated: "This is one of the best direct democracy laws worldwide."

Dialogue between authorities and citizens

The reason for such a positive assessment lies in the conversational approach between authorities and citizens in the new law. However, as my Californian journalist colleague Joe Mathews has pointed out, there are also challenges built into the new law, including the exclusion of budgetary issues and the possibility to propose non-legal policies and principles.

Interestingly, the new law (formally called the "Referendum Act") also lowers hurdles for I&R at the local and regional level across Taiwan.
As an early proof of the positive first reviews, a host of individuals - from NGOs, think-tanks and political parties - have launched more than a dozen initiatives and referendums at the national level only. "We have struggled such a long time for this new law, so we want to use it right away", says Ya-Ting Yang, initiative campaigner at the New Power Party.

That party, having emerged from the Sunflower student movement (a democracy campaign around the planned “Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement” with China in 2014), won five seats in the national parliament in 2016. Now New Power Party is trying to use the new direct democracy law both pragmatically and strategically: "We have launched a citizens´ initiative for a minimum wage and try to find out, how we can use it for the creation of a constitutional convention", says Ya-Ting Yang, adding: "We are very much in learning mood."

Same-sex marriage, nuclear power, transitional justice and food security.

In a first citizens´ initiative hearing held at the Central Election Commission, NPP Chairman and (lead proponent for the minimum wage initiative) Huang Kuop-chang quickly changed from attacking the authorities and government to agreeing to amend the title of his initiative in order to allow its registration. As several additional attempts to propose initiatives around the minimum wage issue (and labour laws) have been made, lead proponents of those initiatives will now meet to possibly agree on a common initiative put forward to the Taiwan people. After decades of mainly confrontational politics, this island society this spring seems to be poised to strike more conciliatory tones.

Other issues in the pipeline for citizens´ initiatives are the legality of same-sex marriages, the future of nuclear power, transitional justice (after the military regime), and food security. "We are really happy that we know can start to concentrate on discussing and deciding on important issues, after being limited for years to choose between a couple of political mainstream camps", says Tsung-Li Yang, who leads a urban development organisation in Taichung. The mayor of his city, Chia-lung Lin, has announced his intention to make Taichung a major hub for democracy support in Taiwan and Asia.

"We need to make participatory and direct democracy a reality on all political levels", Lin said, when we joined hands a few days ago to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to host the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in October (2-5) next year.Already this year, Taichung will send a high-level delegation to the 2018 Forum in Rome (September 26-29), which I will chair together with Joe Mathews. It will be most interesting to hear more about the further development of direct democracy in Taiwan at these two forthcoming world conferences: how the great new law will work in practice.