OPINION: Think Twice Before Backing a Referendum on Taiwan's Constitution

OPINION: Think Twice Before Backing a Referendum on Taiwan's Constitution
Photo Credit: AP / 達志影像

What you need to know

The benefits of a referendum proposed by the Island of Joy and Happiness Coalition calling for a new Taiwan constitution remain unclear.

Last month a group of Taiwanese politicians, including former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and members of the the Taiwan Solidarity Union, New Power Party, and the Social Democratic Party, called for a referendum for next year to write a new constitution for Taiwan, including changing the name to the Republic of Taiwan.

The Republic of China constitution, in effect since 1947, harkens back to an era when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) and the Kuomintang (KMT) fought in vain to stave off territorial losses to the Communists, ultimately retreating to Taiwan yet still holding out for unification under their terms and under their legal framework.

Even ignoring how China would respond to the passing of such referendum, the broader tangible benefits to Taiwan appear overstated.

Arguments in favor of altering this constitution gained prominence with Taiwan’s democratization, although a consensus on such changes proved illusory. Yet constitutional reforms to date have remained piecemeal in nature, meeting practical demands without overtly declaring permanent separation from China. Such post-1991 reforms helped entrench Taiwan’s democratization, namely the direct election of the President, while the suspension the National Assembly (國民大會) and the references to Taiwan as the “Free Area of the Republic of China” ("中華民國自由地區") continues the lip service that de facto independence does not preclude eventual unification. More broadly, the constitution stands in stark contrast to changes in public perceptions that, according to survey data from National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, show a majority of citizens since 2009 identify as Taiwanese, compared to a third to identifying as both Chinese and Taiwanese.

Any such referendum will face considerable institutional hurdles, especially as the Referendum Act (公民投票法) passed in December specifically precludes referendums of this kind to change the country’s name or constitution, an amendment supported by both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang (KMT). Every national referendum to date (six since 2004) has failed due to not meeting the required legal threshold of at least 50 percent turnout among voters, although the reforms last year reduced this turnout threshold to 25 percent and lowered other institutional hurdles to propose a referendum considerably.

In addition, proponents still need to articulate the benefits of constitutional reform at this time. National pride and reconfiguring a constitution to meet present day conditions has its merits and Lee Teng-hui framed the referendum issue as means to turn Taiwan into a “normal country.” While constitutional reforms generally are couched in terms of strengthening and/or protecting Taiwan’s democracy, the practical effects of this new referendum campaign remain unclear. Taiwanese politicians discourage public participation in politics, especially issues ignored by major parties. However, actions that are likely to encourage increased nationalist rhetoric from China or worse, an explicit timeline for unification, does not help independence-oriented Taiwanese politicians.

Even ignoring how China would respond to the passing of such referendum, the broader tangible benefits to Taiwan appear overstated. For example, claims that this would aid Taiwan’s return to the United Nations ignores that China still holds a Security Council veto it could use to prevent Taiwan’s membership. Taiwan’s efforts to join additional international organizations, regardless of a name change, would likely face the same threat. Nor is it likely that countries that currently do not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan would change their political calculus simply due to a name change. A successful referendum resulting in a name change may change the conversation about Taiwan’s sovereignty and participation in international organizations, but it is unlikely to change the policies of other governments.

In terms of domestic politics, a referendum push that gains traction complicates Taiwan’s local elections in November, where the Kuomintang (KMT) would like to bounce back from historic losses over the past four years. Growing support for a referendum, even one repackaged as non-binding, would increase pressure for Tsai and the DPP to respond. Savvy KMT leadership, while avoiding discussion about eventual unification, would likely latch onto the referendum narrative as creating regional instability, aiding the party to reposition itself as a moderate party. Such efforts would be further encouraged if current DPP officials explicitly join the coalition calling for a referendum or the Tsai administration appears to implicitly support the effort.

Even if the referendum’s effect on the local elections is minimal, a growing referendum movement would likely shape the election dialogue around the 2020 election as presidential and legislative hopefuls start laying the groundwork for these campaigns after the local elections. Among the pan-green coalition, the referendum also risks driving a wedge between those supportive of actions consistent with the original goals of the DPP – formal independence as stated in the first article of its charter – and moderates content with the ambiguous status quo for now. Such a schism further benefits KMT interests.

The revised referendum law has already produced several additional demands, from changing Taiwan’s name in the Olympics away from the awkward “Chinese Taipei” to increasing the minimum wage. Many of these less ambitious efforts are likely to fail as debates about the wording of the referendums as well as additional legal challenges to limit the scope and domain of the referendums endure.

Nevertheless, such efforts encourage a deepening of Taiwan’s democracy by providing another outlet for Taiwanese citizens and small parties across the political spectrum to effect change. However, by focusing on a referendum destined to generate controversy and security concerns, one that is unlikely to pass under present conditions, and may drive Taiwanese voters away from the pan-green coalition, supporters of the current referendum push may ultimately undermine their own political interests.

Read next: Vibrant yet Dangerous: Taiwan’s Democracy Flies Sunward

Photo: National Assembly delegates from various parties hold party logos translated as "steps for democracy! parliamentary reform, etc." on the assembly floor as they celebrate the closing of the assembly convention, Tuesday, June 7, 2005, in Taipei, Taiwan. The National Assembly convention adopted sweeping changes to Taiwan's constitution.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston