Explainer: Taiwan’s 2021 Referendum Results

Explainer: Taiwan’s 2021 Referendum Results
Photo Credit: If Lin

What you need to know

All four referendum questions in Taiwan have failed to pass, marking a victory for the governing DPP and setback for the opposition KMT.

Taiwanese voters went to the polls today to respond to four questions about trade, energy policy, environmental protection, and regulations governing referendums. At the time of writing, they have returned four “no’s.” The ballots against the proposals each surpassed four million, while the turnout was around 40%. 

For a proposal to pass, the “yes” votes have to surpass around 4.95 million and the number of “no” votes. In this referendum, both conditions have not been met. Taiwanese media have described the results as “a major victory” for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Eric Chu, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT)’s chairman, said, “the referendum results have come as a detriment to Taiwan’s democracy.” “The referendum has died,” he said. “It’d be difficult to pass any proposals in the future.”

In her speech, President Tsai said the results have expressed “four clear messages” on government policies. “Democracy is always Taiwan’s strongest backing,” she said.

Here is our brief analysis of the results:

Do you agree that the government should prohibit imports of pork or other related products that contain ractopamine?
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Polls had predicted that voters would reject the imports of these products, which experts say would have harmed Taiwan-U.S. trade ties, interfered with a bid to join a trans pacific trade pact, and presented President Tsai with a political dilemma. U.S. government officials have said Taiwan’s ban of pork with ractopamine was what put a bilateral trade deal on hold before the DPP government passed a bill to allow the import from the beginning of 2021.

Proposed by Lin Wei-chou, a KMT legislator, the referendum aimed to reverse the government’s decision to allow the import of American pork. The issue is one in which the parties have reversed their positions, reflecting each party’s strategy of latching onto popular sentiment while in opposition yet being subject to the exigencies of conducting international relations when in government. Just hours after the polls closed, Lin resigned from his post as the KMT’s Deputy Director-General.

In 2012, during KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, Taiwan lifted restrictions on the import of American beef, which contains the feed additive, for Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks with the United States. A spokesman for President Ma said, “there is no scientific evidence proving that the meat of animals fed with ractopamine is harmful to the human body.”

Do you agree that the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant should be unsealed and operated commercially to generate electricity?
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The KMT was an early and strong backer of this proposal, in keeping with their traditional pro-nuclear position. But they’ve found themselves kneecapped by New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi’s refusal to endorse the campaign. (The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is located in New Taipei City.) Central in the minds of many voters could be Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011. 

Do you agree that CPC Corp.’s planned site for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal should be relocated from an algal reef off the coast of Datan, Taoyuan?
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At first glance, this question is notable for representing a shift from the DPP’s traditional role as the party more at home with environmental activists. The LNG terminal would advance fossil fuels in Taiwan’s economy in a way that would, opponents argue, endanger a several thousand year old algal reef and a delicate ecosystem it harbors. But LNG is also seen as a “clean” alternative to coal. 

The government’s main arguments in favor of the project downplay the potential threat to the reef, and emphasize the importance of access to LNG for Taiwan’s energy and national security. The KMT, though, has not embraced this proposal as much as opposition to U.S. pork imports, with opposition from local legislators in Taoyuan.

Do you agree that referendums should be held concurrently with national elections?
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The procedural question of whether to have referendums on the same day as national elections has been debated mostly on questions of its efficiency, cost, and whether it makes voting easier or more difficult. The DPP’s position is that the 2018 referendums overwhelmed voters, while the KMT argues that holding referendums concurrently with general elections will boost turnout for both.

Underlying this debate is that the KMT is in recent years seen to be the beneficiary of referendums, and has been able to use referendum questions to drive turnout to their general election campaigns. (The KMT’s model could be the U.S. Republican party in 2004, which was able to use same-sex marriage referenda in various states, including key swing state Ohio, in support of George W. Bush’s winning presidential campaign.) For the KMT, their expected electoral gold mine was expected to emerge from opposition to the lifting of the ban on U.S. pork. But the DPP’s success with all four results are a repudiation of the idea that referendums will necessarily play into the hands of the KMT.

Heightening the prominence of referendums, however, haven’t always been seen as a “blue” issue, as the initial push to hold referendums came about under the DPP Chen Shui-bian administration. After all, the push for any kind of constitutional change that the DPP may seek would in all likelihood only come about through a referendum. 

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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