Taiwan's national legislature is about to liberalize existing restrictions on direct democracy mechanisms such as citizen initiatives, government referendums and recalls, reports Dennis Engbarth from Taipei.
The moves followed national elections on January 16, 2016 when, for the first time in Taiwan`s modern history, voters sent the rightist Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) into complete opposition. In the process, Taiwan elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen as the country`s first female head of state and gave the DPP a solid majority in the Legislative Yuan, the national parliament.
DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (pictured) was elected president with 56 percent of 12.7 million valid ballots, compared to 31 percent for KMT chairman Chu Li-lun and 14 percent for the conservative People First Party candidate James Soong. Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20. In the January 16 polls, the DPP secured a solid legislative majority with 68 seats compared to 35 seats for the KMT, five for the left-wing New Power Party, three for the PFP and two for non-partisan legislators.
Many members of the new crop of legislators are representatives of civil society and social movement organizations; some were activists in the so-called “Sunflower“ student and citizen occupation of the Legislative Yuan of 2014, which stymied a controversial draft “trade in services agreement“ signed by the KMT government with China. DPP Legislator and feminist (Ms) Yu Mei-nu said the change in power in the national legislature “provides the first real chance to realize transitional justice and make long overdue legal reforms in human rights and democratic deepening.
Constitutional principles, legal restrictions
“Our current Referendum Act put the right of referendum into a birdcage and we are very pleased to see legislative initiatives that promise to finally liberate the right of referendum and self-determination of Taiwan's citizens,“ said Taiwan Alliance for the Advancement of Youth Rights and Welfare general secretary (Ms) Yeh Ta-hua.
Although the right of initiative and recall is guaranteed in Taiwan`s constitution, there were no legal procedures to realize this right - despite bottom-up campaigns for citizen votes on the controversial fourth nuclear power project - until after nearly 55 years of KMT rule ended with the the victory of DPP former Taipei City mayor Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan`s second direct presidential election in March 2000.
Faced with Chen`s calls to overcome KMT obstruction by initiating “advisory referendums,“ the KMT-controlled Legislative Yuan approved a Referendum Act in 2003 that was promptly dubbed a “birdcage law“ for its restrictions on the constitutionally guaranteed right of initiative.
Besides banning the Executive Yuan (Taiwan's Cabinet) from initiating any plebiscites, the new law installed a two-stage petition requirement and required stiff thresholds for the passage of referendums, including a 50 percent turnout quorum.
Invalidation of all referendums
The turnout quorum enabled the KMT to launch boycotts that stymied valid passage of all six national popular votes on substantive issues held in 2004 and 2008. These stymied measures covered topics such as whether to bolster missile defences against possible attack from China, whether to enact a special law to investigate and deal with the “party assets“ the KMT accumulated during the four decades of martial law rule, and whether Taiwan should apply for entry into the United Nations.
The KMT also established a legislature-controlled “Referendum Review Committee“ (RCC) to vet the content of citizens’ initiatives. Numerous citizens’ initiative were blocked by the RRC during the eight years of renewed KMT rule under President Ma Ying-jeou after May 2008 - even after the proposals had reached the first-stage threshold of 0.5 percent of the electorate or over 93,000 signatures.
Stopped citizens’ initiatives
These included citizens’ initiatives launched by opposition parties and citizen groups calling for a referendum to ratify the wide ranging “economic cooperation framework agreement“ (ECFA) signed by the KMT government with China in 2010. At least four such first-stage citizens’ initiatives were submitted in 2010, each with over 100,000 signatures. But all petitions were denied by the RRC for reasons including that the China pact had not been signed and that free trade agreements were not subject to ratification by referendum.
On August 22, 2014, the RCC vetoed an initiative filed by the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union with 121,831 signatures, well over the 90,432 threshold, on whether the US$10 billion fourth nuclear power plant being constructed by the state-owned Taiwan Power Co in north-east Taiwan should load nuclear fuel and begin test operations. The RRC denied access to a
second-stage initiative on the grounds that the proposal and its explanation was “self-contradictory“ and not in keeping with the Referendum Act`s requirement that initiatives “initiate or ratify a major policy or law."
Only three initiatives were approved for the second-stage, which requires the signatures of 5 percent of the eligible electorate in the most recent presidential election - or over 932,000 citizens - to qualify for the ballot. None of the three initiatives - to ban imports of beef laced with leaning additives from the United States, to excise the 50 percent quorum threshold in the Referendum Act itself and to prohibit same-sex marriages - achieved the 930,000 threshold to get on the ballot.
Making direct democracy work
During a celebratory rally of over 30,000 supporters on January 16, DPP Taichung City Mayor Lin Chia-lung declared that thanks to the landslide victory, “we will be able to release the right of referendum from the KMT-built birdcage and realize the goal of making Taiwan a nuclear-free homeland by 2025.“
Even before Tsai and her government took office on May 20, the new national legislature launched initiatives to release direct democracy from long-lasting “birdcage“ restrictions as DPP and New Power Party lawmakers introduced or resubmitted nine sets of revisions to the Referendum Act. By May 12, the Interior Affairs Committee of the Legislative Yuan had hammered out an initial consensus on numerous liberalizing proposals.
DPP Legislator Chen Chi-mai, the co-convenor of the committee, told reporters that the committee was likely to complete its review and submit a complete package of revisions to the full Legislature before the end of May for second and third readings. “There should be no problem in securing passage of these changes given the majority of the DPP and NPP in the Legislative Yuan,“ said
DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yi.
Among the key points of consensus are the following:
- The abolishment of the “Referendum Review Committee" which turned into a mechanism for blocking referendum topics unwanted by the KMT;
- The reduction of thresholds for the two-stages of citizen initiative. The new, lower thresholds would be 0.001 percent of the eligible electorate (or about 1,900 signatures for the first stage) and 1.5 percent (about 270,000) for the second-stage initiative phase;
- The elimination of the 50 percent turnout quorum, thus allowing initiatives to pass with 50 percent of the valid votes cast, without a turnout quorum.
- The lowering of the voting age for referendums from the current statutory voting age of 20 years of age to 18 years of age;
In mid-April, the Legislature`s Interior Affairs Committee also reached initial consensus on proposed revisions to the Election and Recall Act on recall campaigns. The proposed revisions submitted by DPP lawmakers would lower the threshold for signatures for recall initiatives from 13 percent of the electorate in the district to 10 percent, drop a ban on publicity activities to promote or oppose a recall vote, and lower the threshold for passage of recall votes from least half of the eligible voters in the district to a simple majority of the valid votes cast in a recall vote.
The new opposition party
In its last days in office, the KMT government persisted in its opposition to relaxation of Referendum Act`s restrictions. (Cabinet) secretary-general Chien Tai-lang said the KMT government backed the continuation of the “dual majority“ threshold for valid passage (a reference to both the majority vote for the measure and the 50 percent turnout quorum) and opposed the abolition of the Referendum Review Committee and the proposed reduction of the voting age for referenda from 20 to 18 years of age.
Will KMT´s views on modern direct democracy change now after the power transition? It´s not clear. KMT Legislator and Interior Affairs Committee co-convenor (Ms) Huang Chao-hsun declined comment when asked about her views on the proposed revisions to the Referendum Act. Intriguingly, KMT lawmakers did not oppose most of the proposed changes during committee hearings. Taiwan Labour Front secretary-general Sun Yu-lien said that the proposed revisions “will be a milestone for the deepening of mature democracy and expanding citizen participation in Taiwan.“
Sun also stated that the revisions will open the possibility of citizen-triggered initiatives for the ratification of key trade agreements, such as the U.S.-promoted “Transpacific Partnership Agreement“ (TPP) Yeh Ta-hua. was more cautious about whether the current revisions were sufficiently rigorous.
“There should be different thresholds for referendums on major public policies and initiatives on sensitive issues affecting the constitutional structure,“ said Yeh, who added that “there remains a need for a reasonable and transparent method to substitute for the RRC to ensure that proposed referendums or initiatives fit with the legal framework and basic human rights guarantees.“
“These issues may be resolved in the second and third readings of the revisions,“ she said.