Matsu Rolls the Dice on More than Just Casinos

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Saturday July 14, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

There are many reasons for voting to have a casino in ones county, city or even neighborhood just as there are many reasons for voting not to have a casino there; this piece is not going to examine those arguments. Nonetheless having said that, when the island of Matsu recently voted in a referendum to approve the building of a casino resort, it had to consider such. Yet what happened went beyond that and revealed a happening that promised to shake Taiwan. For the Matsu vote involved not just the weighing of the pros and cons of casinos; it involved other factors that dealt with democracy and rule of law as well as the real and metaphoric aspects of gambling and bluffing.

Matsu is a small island right off the coast of China yet though closer to China than any other country, it is not part of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Instead it is part of the Republic of China (ROC) or distant Taiwan. In its past history, Matsu, unlike China has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and unlike Taiwan; it had never been part of the Japanese Empire. It has its own strange and unique history.

One problem, however, that this small island and its surrounding archipelago has had is that it currently registers only 7, 762 eligible voters in contrast to some 17 million plus eligible voters in Taiwan. So when it comes to clout in the political scene and getting improvements done to Matsu's infrastructure, those seven thousand voters remain a drop in the bucket and hardly worth the time of day when monies must be divided.

Enter now the quirks, advantages, and disadvantages of present day reality and democracy. In the nation of Taiwan, gambling is illegal despite the fact that many of its people like to and do gamble. For this reason, Taiwan has never seen the building of any casinos since such approval of gambling casinos must pass the Legislative Yuan to become law and most legislators would not want to face the concerted efforts of anti-casino lobbying groups in their local electorate. Whenever the matter of casinos has been suggested, said groups have quickly squashed it.

In the year 2000, however, in an effort to help development in the outer areas, Taiwans Legislative Yuan did pass the Offshore Island Development Act (OIDA), a seemingly innocent act designed to promote tourism etc. to those islands. This act sat quietly on the books until an amendment in 2009 subsequently included the building of casinos as part of offshore development; the building of said casinos was declared legal if approved by a local referendum. Now the plot thickens.

Seizing the moment, the pro-gambling groups quickly pushed for a referendum on Penghu but it was defeated (2009). It must be noted that said island development referendums do not have to pass the normal high bar that is set for general referendums in Taiwan. In those referendums, the first requirement is that over 50 per cent of all eligible voters must turn out and vote before a referendum can be approved. In contrast, the local OIDA referendums will live or die on the results of a majority of those who actually do vote on that day.

Thus, on July 7, 2012, when Matsu voters went to the polls, 1795 of them voted for casinos and 1341 voted against. Put another way, by a majority of 454 voters on this small out of the way island, the fate of casinos on Taiwan was determined and the other 17 million plus voters in Taiwan had no say in it at all. It was all perfectly democratic; it was all perfectly legal.

Now follow the consequences. Since the voters have approved the building of resort casinos, Weidner Resorts Taiwan quickly stepped up and said they would both contribute handsomely to the development of infrastructure in Matsu as well as build a resort casino there. Likewise, the national government, no doubt silently encouraged by many pro-gambling groups who for obvious reasons would not want to be named, must also commit resources to this project. They must also develop bills to handle casino development and the many issues and challenges that brings with it. To their credit, or perhaps their anticipation, they appear to have been prepared for this and have draft legislation ready to be examined.

But then what made the Matsu voters choose this route? Certainly a factor is that in a gambling sense, they had nothing to lose. They had not been able to attract much investment or infrastructure development because they had little or no political clout; their votes remained a drop in the proverbial bucket in any significant elections or choices. If the OIDA was meant as window dressing, a bluff to satisfy the concerns of other voters that the Legislative Yuan cared for all the citizens of Taiwan, then the voters of Matsu called that bluff. Once the Matsu referendum was passed, the ball was now in the government's court. As the government prepares to go about this, of course, the people of Matsu are not out of the woods yet; Kinmen, an island with a better-prepared infrastructure, could also have its referendum. Whether they will hold a referendum and whether that will compete with Matsu remains to be seen. But for Matsu, the people have spoken; they want development.

For the general public, this is a lesson in democracy; there will always be times and situations where individual votes clearly do count; there will be times when the small can have their significant say. For the pro-gambling group this all of course has been a desired outcome and they can rejoice; for others like the anti-lobbying groups, it was all perfectly legal and they have no current recourse. Their only hope will be to look to potentially holding another referendum three years hence. For Taiwan, it will be a significant moment that all can point to and say, the course of a nation was determined by 454 votes on an out of the way island and that is part and parcel of democracy.