Much of the attention on Taiwan’s local elections has focused on the success of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the poor performance of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Although the claims of a “Blue wave” may be overstated once one moves beyond the high profile executive races (see here), the organization of conservative interests in regards to the five referendums regarding same-sex marriage is difficult to ignore.

However, less attention fell on another one of the referendums presented to Taiwanese voters on Saturday, a question about Taiwan’s name. While Taiwanese still have not had the opportunity to vote on whether the country should formally change its name from the Republic of China to something more Taiwan-centric, a vote that would surely inflame relations with China and likely lead to military conflict, Saturday’s election did allow for a public vote regarding the name Taiwan uses in the Olympics.

Changes in Taiwan’s referendum law in December 2017 not only made it easier to get referendums on the national ballot but also lowered the threshold for a referendum to be considered valid, now down to 25 percent of the electorate. As such, local elections witnessed 10 referendums on the ballot, compared to six previous ones since a referendum law passed in 2003.

Referendum Number 13 asked, “Do you agree to the use of “Taiwan” when participating in all international sport competitions, including the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics? (你是否同意,以「台灣」(Taiwan) 為全名申請參加所有國際運動賽事及2020年東京奧運?)

Despite little public support for the current term used for international competitions – “Chinese Taipei” – a slim majority (52 percent) voted no on the referendum. A cursory glance suggests higher support for the referendum in traditional “Green” areas, and traditional strongholds for pro-Taiwanese identity. Yet even here, voters did not overwhelmingly support the referendum. For example, roughly 50 percent of voters in Tainan approved, while roughly 47 percent in Kaohsiung approved.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Pro-independence supporters take part in a rally to protest against what they claim are annexation efforts by China, and to call for a referendum, in Taipei, Taiwan Oct. 20, 2018.

With few post-election surveys addressing the issue, the rationale behind this defeat remains largely conjecture, although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prior to the referendum stated that Taiwan could lose its ability to compete in the 2020 if it attempted to change its name. Voters may have also been concerned not only by China’s response to such an effort, but whether the referendum's passage would energize efforts for the far more controversial act of changing the name of the country.

Earlier this year former presidents Lee Teng-Hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), among others, announced a push for such a referendum in 2019 for constitutional reform, and a name change, despite the current referendum law specifically precluding referendums regarding constitutional and sovereignty questions. Proponents have yet to articulate the benefits of constitutional reform, and a name change, other than Lee’s claims that the measure would aid in turning Taiwan into a “normal country.”

Supporters of this year’s referendum arguably suffered from the same messaging problem, unable to identify the explicit benefits other than national pride, against the more concrete potential costs of Taiwanese athletes unable to compete. These concrete costs were further emphasized with Taiwanese Olympic athletes themselves, days before the election, publicly stated their opposition to the referendum.

Taiwan pulled out of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal after the Canadian government, now recognizing the People’s Republic of China, refused to let Taiwan compete under the “Republic of China” moniker. The 1979 Nagoya Resolution led to the People’s Republic of China participating in the Olympic Games while prohibiting Taiwan from competing under the name “Republic of China,” but rather competing under the term “Chinese Taipei,” and without the use of the national flag and anthem. Taiwan responded by boycotting the 1980 summer and winter Olympics, but ultimately accepting the term in 1981, at Lausanne, Switzerland. This acceptance occurred despite no public support at the time even among those largely supportive of the then authoritarian regime.

Read Next: On the Front Lines of Taiwan's Chaotic Referendums

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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