The Taiwanese democracy rollercoaster

Democracy in Taiwan can feel like a rollercoaster ride. It goes up and it goes down, at the same time.

Take the Referendum Act, which in 2003 made history by giving Taiwanese people the right to propose to amend laws passed by their elected leaders. The very same act that created this right made it next to impossible for the people to use it at the national level.


Why? Because it contained what is called a turnout quorum. You couldn’t win a referendum with a majority of those who happened to cast a vote on the question. You needed 50 percent of all eligible voters to participate for a vote to be valid, and 50 percent of all voters, again, to approve for the referendum to pass. Six times after the act's passage, political parties advanced referenda, but not one could meet such high thresholds.


The rollercoaster dived down—and then began its climb anew. In 2016, the longtime Taiwanese opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, came to power with full control of all branches of government. It had long favored the referendum as a check on the authorities. A former party chairman, going on a hunger strike to create urgency, secured the party’s commitment for swift revision of the Referendum Act to make it easier to use.


At first, the efforts worked. In December 2017, Taiwan’s legislative body, the Legislative Yuan, passed major revisions of the Referendum Act with consensus from all political parties. These changes lowered the voting age for referenda and ballot initiatives, which propose laws, from 20 to 18. The new rules also lowered the thresholds of signatures required to get a referendum or initiative on the ballot, and of votes required to approve it. Under the reforms, you only needed 25 percent of eligible voters to approve a referendum, and a majority of those who showed up on election day.


What’s more, the amendments required the government to set up an online petition collection system to make it easier to qualify measures for the ballot, allowed absentee voting on referenda, and scheduled votes on referenda on the same days as candidate elections—which made it easier to get the required high levels of voter turnout. The revisions opened up direct democracy. In November 2018, 10 initiatives or referenda made the ballot, and seven were actually approved by voters.


This should have been a triumph for the DPP, which had proposed the reforms. But DPP didn’t like the results of the elections in 2018; voters went against the party’s policies on energy, gay rights, and imported food.


So, the party turned against the Referendum Act it had championed, initiating another rollercoaster plunge.


The government ignored the voters’ contrary verdict on energy in 2018, making the direct democracy process look weak. The government delayed allowing absentee voting, and delayed the implementation of the online signature-gathering system. In 2019, it rammed through further legislative revisions of the Referendum Act, and made the law more difficult to use once again. One revision decoupled referendum votes from candidate elections, lowering turnouts while leaving approval thresholds in place—making it that much harder for a measure to pass.


The DPP’s changes to the Referendum Act could have been worse. One proposed revision would have required signers of petitions for referenda and initiatives to provide copies of personal ID. Proponents withdrew the change at the last minute after DPP’s former vice president Annette Lu threatened to join a new hunger strike, led by younger proponents of direct democracy, in response. I was among the protestors at her side.


Still, the rollbacks took a toll. A pro-nuclear power proposal that had qualified for the November 2020 election was postponed to August 2021, and then further pushed back to December 18, 2021 because of the pandemic. On that day, four national initiatives and referenda were decided by voters, but the turnout was low, in spite of heavy mobilization by the major parties. Indeed, the voter participation rate was just 41%, compared to normal election-day participation of 65%. With such low participation, 61% of those who voted would have had to vote yes to reach the approval threshold of 25% of the electorate.


This result demonstrated that the approval thresholds encourage people not to vote. Even if the measures had majority support, they would not have taken effect because not enough voters turned up. In Taiwan you can stop a proposal, or the entire direct democracy system, by not showing up. Incentivizing people not to vote is not a good direction for democracy.


In this context, many democracy activists in Taiwan believe that the national initiative and referendum are dead letters, even though there is still a referendum law. Those activists may be right. As of this writing, not a single referendum or initiative has qualified, at the national level, for the August 2023 referendum voting day. There is no serious proposal on any subject (i.e. with adequate backing, financially or politically) on the horizon.


The democratic rollercoaster rolls on. Even as participation gets harder at the national level, there are bright spots for direct democracy locally.


In December 2021, a local “Clean Water” referendum was approved by voters of Hsinchu City (population 450,000, of whom 350,000 are eligible voters). Hsinchu city has the lowest threshold for signature gathering among all cities and counties in Taiwan. It only takes the signatures of 0.01% of voters (i.e. 35 persons) to qualify in the first stage of petitioning, and just 1 percent (or 3,500 voters) to complete the second stage and qualify for the ballot. The “Clean Water” initiative won 131,000 voters, or 85% approval among the votes cast, which exceeded the 25 percent threshold for approval of all voters. Voter participation was 43 percent.


Elsewhere at the local level, too, there is democratic progress. The national Central Election Commission may have never implemented its online petition signature collection—the government claims the system has been under “security review” since 2018—but local governments can, and have, set up their own systems. Last summer, Taipei City (population 2.5 million) put its system online. Its citizens have proposed three initiatives in the months since. 


While the national ballot may be empty of referenda and initiatives in August, local initiatives are moving ahead. One local initiative in Keelung, a harbor city of 360,000 people north of Taipei, has attracted national attention. The proposal, which seeks to block a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal next to the harbor, is stalled—partly because of an argument over whether the issue is local or national, and partly because of energy policy differences between the two major parties.


I’m not just an observer of the ups and downs of democracy in Taiwan. I’ve ridden the rollercoaster myself. Since 2017, I have been the principal sponsor of three initiatives in Taiwan. The first was a Negative Vote (#BalancedBallot) electoral reform proposal at the national level; in short, it allows people to vote against candidates, not just for them. The government used administrative procedures and then the courts to block it from proceeding to the second stage of petition gathering.


Now, my allies and I are working on another national Negative Vote initiative, with a narrower scope of reform, using our own online system to collect petitions. I have also proposed a Negative Vote initiative for Taipei City, using the Taipei City online system—but I’ve decided not to continue using that system until major deficiencies are corrected.


In the meantime, I am lobbying other cities to implement their own online petition systems. I’m hopeful that the rollercoaster will continue uphill again, and I won’t have to wait years to see results.