Taiwan's UN Referenda Fail to Reach Their Abnormally High Bar

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Sunday March 23, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

In any other country if a referendum were held and 94 per cent of those voting on it approved, it would be considered successful. That is not the case however in Taiwan for Taiwan has unusually high requirements for success. First of all, 50 per cent of the eligible voters must pick up and cast a ballot, and then 50 per cent of those who cast a ballot must approve the referendum. Herein lies the problem. The first big hurdle requires 50 per cent of the total eligible voters and not 50 per cent of those who vote on any given day, so if there is a low voter turnout or even a medium sized voter turnout, a referendum is already in danger of not passing.

Referenda will have various requirements. They may or may not have a prerequisite that voter turnout be a certain percentage of the electorate. The Danish model requires 40 per cent of the electorate; Taiwan requires 50 per cent. Some determining bodies state that a referendum can be passed by a simple majority of those who vote and there have been cases where a referendum has passed with as little as 8 per cent of the electorate voting. Others stipulate different types of a majority such as a simple majority (50 per cent plus one), a clear majority (50 to 60 per cent of those voting) and an absolute majority (over two thirds of those voting).

In Canada, the Canadian government does not accept referenda as automatically binding; Quebec's referendum to secede from Canada in 1995 required a simple 50 per cent plust one. It barely missed passing (receiving 49.42 per cent yes votes) and had many worried. Montenegro seeking independence from Serbia in 1996 wanted to go with a simple 50 per cent plus one, but the European Union required that it have 55 per cent of those casting ballots. Montenegro still achieved that level and the referendum passed.

Taiwan has had six referendums since its people began freely electing its president, and not one of these referenda has passed. They have all failed not because the majority of those voting did not approve them but because an insufficient number of those eligible to vote picked up ballots. This is what happened to the two referenda on whether the people of Taiwan wanted Taiwan to enter the United Nations (UN). On the referendum proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 6,201,677 people picked up ballots and 5,529,230 voted yes, i.e. that they agreed to the referendum. 352,359 people voted no and 320,088 cast invalid votes. The approval percentage was 94.01; yet while over six million people approved, the referendum needed over eight million people to pick up ballots before it would even be considered eligible because the total eligible voter base was 17,313,854. A similar defeat was dealt to the UN referendum proposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Its approval percentage was 87.27 per cent with close to five million people approving.

The purpose of any referendum is to serve as a record of what the public thinks, but because of various requirements, the results can be misleading. Besides simply not going to vote, there may be many other reasons why eligible voters fail to pick up ballots. In Taiwan referenda are often used to mobilize voters towards their party's agenda and not that of the nation. Thus if one party proposes a referendum, the opposition can go counter to it by refusing to pick up a ballot though they vote for candidates for office. In this way party voters will not go on record as voting against a given proposition but they will have defeated it because it did not have sufficient voters pick up a ballot. In recent polls in Taiwan, over 80 per cent of the people have supported the idea that Taiwan should be represented in the United Nations, but 80 per cent of the eligible voters did pick up ballots to support either party's referendum on entering the UN. In particular, the KMT told its followers to boycott the UN referendum vote. Taiwan's referendum laws need reform so that the nation will have a closer way to gage public opinion. Until that happens, foreign media can easily misinterpret the results of Taiwan's UN referenda.