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High participation crucial for Taiwan's referendum on fate of Nuke 4

Publication Date : 28-04-2014


President Ma Ying-jeou and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang traded barbs in a meeting Friday over the fate of the country's Fourth Nuclear Power Plant.

They argued about the schedule of the referendum that would be held in relation to the controversial project, with Su demanding that the popular vote should be initiated as soon as possible. Ma, for his part, stressed that such a vote should be held only after the completion of a series of safety assessments by Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) and after the Atomic Energy Council gave its approval.

The two leaders also expressed vastly different views on the required percentage of participating voters. On the one hand, Su contended that the current 50 per cent turnout threshold should be lowered to 25 per cent, meaning that the fate of the nuclear-power plant in New Taipei City's Gongliao District would be decided by a simple majority vote among a quarter of all eligible voters. On the other hand, Ma argued that proper turnout requirements would strengthen the referendum's legitimacy. If a controversial public project like the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is approved in a referendum that allows a lower voter turnout, it will also create a dangerous precedent for the future. Why?

The main opposition party wants to have the threshold lowered specifically for the vote on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant so that a legally binding decision can be made by a majority of the 25 per cent of Taiwan's electorate. Mathematically, it would mean that the opposition (or, by extension, the ruling party) could get its way by simply mobilizing its die-hard supporters (or at least 12 percent of the electorate) for any referendums in the future, including a reform of the constitution, changing the name of the country or deciding on the country's energy and trade policies, as well as the future of cross-strait relations. That is unacceptable.

Strangely enough, when it comes to issues regarding mainland China such as the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, the opposition party wants all agreements signed to be put to a stringent referendum. In other words, when the DPP wants an issue to pass a referendum, the party argues to lower the threshold. And when the DPP wants to have an issue killed, it aims to raises the participation requirement. This is simply treating referendums like a game.

Politicians should keep in mind that the previous six national referendums, held on issues such as anti-corruption and strengthening national defense, all failed because they didn't offer proper alternatives to the electorate, not because the policies weren't controversial enough for citizens to be keen to go to the polls. Once again, the two sides of Taiwan's political spectrum only care about “zero-sum game” politics, meaning that there must always be one winner and one loser, instead of working together to make “the cake” bigger for everybody to enjoy. Referendums should demand a greater level of public engagement with the process, meaning that parties should work harder on convincing middle-of-the-road voters to vote for their proposal rather than relying on die-hard supporters. By compromising sometimes, they would likely boost turnout and offer new options to the electorate, and that can only be a good thing.

According to public opinion polls conducted over the past year, the upcoming referendum on Nuke 4 is likely to attract a voter turnout of 60 to 70 per cent, so the current threshold should not be a problem in the first place. Ruling and opposition parties, on the contrary, should work together to create a new direction for Taiwan's energy policy instead of wasting time and resources on deciding every issue via a referendum.

So far, some 40 per cent of the island's electricity is generated by burning coal, 30 per cent using natural gas and 18.4 percent by nuclear power plants, according to data from the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

The country sits in the so-called “ring of fire” region of seismic activity around the Pacific Ocean, exposing constructions in Taiwan to the danger of earthquakes. It is time for the government to consider new options for producing electricity. But, a referendum should not be a mandate to destroy a country's long term energy policy.

The only way to claim that such an important decision is supported by most people is a participation requirement in addition to a single majority. That is, a majority of the 50 percent of the entire electorate voting in favor of change.


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