Vibrant yet Dangerous: Taiwan’s Democracy Flies Sunward

Vibrant yet Dangerous: Taiwan’s Democracy Flies Sunward
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
What you need to know

The pace of change in the legislative yuan is breathtaking and illustrative of a vibrant young democracy, but changes to referendum laws open a Pandora’s box.  

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The UK and Taiwan are remarkably similar. Both are islands currently estranged from the massive trading blocs just visible across the water from their coasts. Both have issues with immigration, the former having voted for Brexit amid an atmosphere of toxic anti-immigration sentiment stoked by the UK Independence Party and their adherents, the latter struggling to attract global talent to counter a massive and paralyzing brain drain. Both are fond of seeing in the evening with a pot of tea. And both are vibrant democracies.

There is though a marked difference in the pace with which the pair are enacting legislation. The deeply divided government of UK Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to deal with the overwhelming legislative and bureaucratic avalanche that is Brexit, not least the business dictated by the Great Repeal Bill that will see the UK place about 1,000 European Union laws on its books via statutory instrument.

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photo credit: REUTERS/Mary Turner/達志影像
UK Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to manage the fallout from Brexit.

The body tasked with absorbing the brunt of these changes, the civil service, is suffering from flagging morale and double-quick turnover as the strain of diverting 8,000 jobs to managing Brexit puts undue stress on other roles. Policymakers, captains of industry and academics bemoan the fact that Brexit has rendered their ability to push through meaningful legislative change on other issues a near-impossible task. Britain’s government is creaking under the strain, with the authority of its leader called into question on a weekly basis.

Meanwhile in Taiwan, the pace in parliament is breathtaking. In the last two weeks or so, the Ninth Legislative Yuan has reviewed Acts and related amendments addressing labor standards, transitional justice for the martial law period and the rules surrounding national and local referenda.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government of president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is bulldozing these bills through parliament with the backing of a huge majority, the first time the party has enjoyed one since Taiwan moved on from martial law.

SEE ALSO: President Tsai's Transitional Justice Act Opens Old Wounds and New

It is an exciting time, but there are also reasons to be watchful.

The changes to the Referendum Act are sweeping, and have been widely welcomed as ushering in a new era of direct democracy in Taiwan. Change was definitely necessary to resolve a situation where the six previous attempts to hold a national referendum since the passage of the Referendum Act in 2003 had failed to attract the interest of the 50 percent of the electorate required to validate them. The process was vulnerable to boycott by either of the major political parties, resulting in what critics called “birdcage referendums” that died on their feet.

Of the changes being rung, the abolition of a cabinet appointed committee, the Referendum Review Commission, that could simply dispose of referendum proposals it did not like is laudable, and the lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21 also bodes well for keeping young voters active and engaged. Allowing signature drives to be conducted online also brings the Act into line with wider effort to promote e-government in Taiwan.

Yet cutting the final referendum voting thresholds in half and slashing the benchmark for the first and second stages, as the amendments do, opens a Pandora’s box.

The changes come against a backdrop of rising global populism. Concerns over globalization, and perhaps more worryingly still, automation, are putting immense pressure on governments. In this atmosphere, it is more likely that weak leaders of divided parties will use referendums to abdicate responsibility for leadership. Former U.K. Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union is a case in point.

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Photo Credit: REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth / 達志影像
David Cameron waves goodbye after terminally misjudging the national mood over Brexit.

On the other hand, strong leaders in illiberal democracies, in which freedom of the press is effectively stymied by the state, use referendums to legitimize power grabs in the eyes of their own people and the international community. This year’s referendum vote in Turkey effectively transformed the country from a parliamentary to a presidential republic under the stewardship of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Critics suggest that Turkey, which ranks 151 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) press freedom index, and where as a result of the referendum the president now has the power to directly appoint senior judges, lacks the necessary checks and balances to avoid sliding into dictatorship.

In Taiwan, the desire to put issues to public vote stems from widespread mistrust over the competence and honesty of politicians and the judiciary. The question is, how will governments deploy their newly bestowed power?

Taiwan is safe from sweeping constitutional upheaval because the changes to the Referendum Act place such questions outside its remit. Yet this begs the question: If national referendums do not address constitutional questions, what should they be used for?

Ending the use of nuclear power and same-sex marriage equality are two questions that could be put to a plebiscite. But the DPP was elected on a platform to shut down all its nuclear generation facilities by 2025, and a goal to work towards the end of nuclear is enshrined in the Basic Environment Act of 2002. As for same-sex marriage, President Tsai made the issue a center point of her presidential campaign and the Constitutional Court has already ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry. Putting these questions to a national vote would merely reflect politicians’ unwillingness to risk alienating the electorate by taking on the responsibility of acting on their election manifesto promises, and indeed the guidance offered by the judicial branch of government.

SEE ALSO: Ahead of Pride, Taiwan Still Waits for Same-sex Marriage

Of course there will be unforeseeable controversies that merit a national conversation. But if these issues are put to a popular vote by the executive branch of government with the aim of securing a mandate that somehow supersedes that bestowed by power in parliament, and surprise, surprise, people vote the “wrong” way, what then? Recent polls in the UK and US have demonstrated that social media makes it vastly simpler for powerful and well funded interest groups to tip the thinking on A versus B questions of national importance.

The changes to the Referendum Act also make practicable local referendums putting forward laws for consideration by city and county councils. Such polls are perhaps even more vulnerable to being held hostage by special interests. Though not a referendum, the recall vote organized against New Power Party Chair Huang Kuo-chang last weekend was one in all but name. Rallying around a single issue, that of Huang’s support for same-sex marriage equality, a small but passionate group of activists almost mobilized enough voters to unseat Huang.

SEE ALSO: OPINION: Huang Kuo-chang Survives Recall Vote and Faces Uncertain Future

Can anyone think of a power with abundant resources that would have an interest in influencing public opinion in Taiwan for its own benefit? Taiwan’s media and government institutions are under constant threat from the Chinese Communist Party and their massive influence operation infrastructure, either through covert attempts to secure ownership and influence or outright cyber attack. At the time of writing, Taiwan’s Investment Commission is reviewing the sale of one of its few politically neutral publications, Next Magazine and its Hong Kong-based parent Next Digital Ltd., to a businessman with rumored ties to China.

The Referendum Act changes make safeguarding the independence and effectiveness of the media in Taiwan even more important. In February, parliament is set to debate revisions to laws on the prevention of media monopolization, and the National Communications Commission (NCC) has said that it plans to amend the Radio and Television Act, the Cable Radio and Television Act and the Satellite Broadcasting Act to bring the suite of laws up to speed with the proliferation of over-the-top content. The commission also plans to explore effective ways of preventing government, political parties, or the military intervention in or ownership of media outlets.

Taiwan is Asia's leader on RSF's press freedom index, but the organization remains concerned over the media's competency. RSF Taipei Bureau Director referred to the situation as [press] freedom on hold. "Journalists do not always respect media standards as much as they should. One of the problems in Taiwan is a lack of clarity over the source of information, or a lack of solid information in the first place," Alvani said on a phone call last week.

Professor Li Chang-lin (李教授) of National Chung Hsing University, who wrote a thesis comparing referendums in Taiwan and California, suggested that the Referendum Act changes move Taiwan towards semi-direct, and semi-representational democracy. It also shows that Taiwan’s political system is evolving and moving into line with global standards. Spelling out the road ahead, Li said: “We have to practice as we don’t have experience, we have to learn from examples overseas, and we have to be responsible.”

The onus is now on the media and politicians to act responsibly as Taiwan begins to experiment with referendums. In a country that regularly sees politicians come to blows, hurl water bombs at each other, and filibuster at an international standard, we may be in for a white knuckle ride.

Editor: Morley J Weston