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Experts tout Taiwan's referendum revision, predict challenges ahead

2018/03/04 16:43:39

Bruno Kaufmann/photo courtesy of Bruno Kaufmann

Taipei, March 4 (CNA) Two international experts in direct democracy have said Taiwan's recent lowering of its referendum thresholds was commendable but they warned that some challenges might emerge as the system is not perfect.

Speaking to CNA on Friday, Bruno Kaufmann and Joe Mathews, co-presidents of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, said the law amendment that was passed last December was "inclusive" and "thoughtful," as it lowered the thresholds for a referendum motion to be initiated and accepted, and for its result to be declared valid.

Joe Mathews/photo courtesy of Bruno Kaufmann

"This new law, in a global comparison, is one of the better ones, it's one of the more inviting ones, allowing people to really use it, and that's very important," said Kaufmann, a Swiss-Swedish journalist and board member of the Swiss Democracy Foundation.

Kaufmann and Mathews are in Taiwan to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Taichung City government to declare Taichung the host city of the 2019 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, an annual forum that discusses participatory democracy, human rights and other issues.

Kaufmann will also give a speech at Taiwan's Central Election Commission (CEC) on Monday, comparing Taiwan's referendum laws with those of other countries.

He said that prior to the December 2017 amendment, Taiwan's 2003 referendum law was less than ideal because of the high threshold to launch a referendum. That meant only big parties with a lot of money could initiate a referendum, while the 50 percent high turnout threshold discouraged voter participation, Kaufmann said.

The new amendment lowered the required number of signatures to launch the first stage of a referendum from 0.1 percent to 0.01 percent of the electorate in the most recent presidential election, and from 5 percent to 1.5 percent in the second stage.

It also stipulated that a vote will be declared valid if 25 percent of the electorate cast ballots and a majority votes in favor of the petition.

Mathews, who also serves as the California and innovation editor of Zócalo Public Square, touted the amended referendum system in Taiwan as "inclusive" and "thoughtful" and said the media and the different branches of government all have a role.

However, the two experts indicated that there might be some challenges ahead for Taiwan.

Referendum initiators in Taiwan can propose new laws and general government policy on issues such as the minimum wage, which invites ambiguity, Kaufmann said.

One of the referendum questions proposed after the law amendment was passed was whether a law should be enacted to ensure that the country's minimum wage meets the basic needs of workers and their dependents.

"In Switzerland, we can only propose new legal texts, which are exactly like in a parliament," Kaufmann said. "You don't vote on general things, you vote on legal texts."

Proposing general advice invites all kinds of political games because the government and the parliament can easily brush aside the referendum result, saying the advice was not clear to them, he said.

It is therefore important that the Central Election Commission plays a constructive role in helping the initiators phrase their questions so that the referendum can be as clear and simple as possible, he said.

Having followed Taiwan's elections for the past 15 years, Kaufmann said, he was of the view that the amended referendum law offered an opportunity for a new kind of politics to take root in Taiwan.

"This is a big, big change for Taiwan -- to go from a system where your vote is counted every four years to maybe having your voice heard every day," he said. "And that creates a totally different kind of democratic society in the long term."

Both Mathews and Kaufmann said direct democracy is about creating conversation in which people can win by losing, meaning that they may lose a vote but still feel empowered because their voices have been heard.

For example, Mathews said, the people who oppose same-sex marriage had been winning ballot initiatives for many years in the United States, but the people who lost the ballots ultimately changed public opinion.

As for concern that the significant lowering of thresholds would create situations where a minority of the electorate can decide on policy, Mathews said amendability is the key.

"It can't be the final word," he said. "It has to be amendable. It's binding. It becomes the law. It becomes the Constitution. But it needs to be a process where it can be tweaked and moved by the other players in the system."

Switzerland, for example, has held multiple national referendums on the issue of nuclear power over the past decades and those who have lost the vote often start another initiative a day after, Kaufmann said.

"In that way, you can say it's all about creating dialogue and you're never really losing," he said. "You're just not getting a majority at the moment. You can still continue."

(By Christie Chen)