Referendums in Taiwan

Originally published: 2009

Extract: Competing for significance with the Taiwanese presidential elections held on 22 March 2008, were two referendums on Taiwan’s entry to the UN, one each sponsored by the rival Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). In the election for president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou emerged victorious by a huge margin winning 58.45 per cent of the total vote compared to the DPP candidate, Frank Hsieh’s 35.82 per cent. However, both the referendums failed to win enough votes – falling short of the 50 per cent turnout required – for their results to be considered valid. The DPP referendum had sought to win support for entering the UN under the name, “Taiwan” while the KMT sought to achieve the same goal using the country’s official title, “Republic of China” (ROC), or any other title that would assure Taiwan’s “dignity.”

Focusing on the UN referendums, this essay looks at the meaning and significance of referendums generally, in the Taiwanese context, despite their repeated failures. Earlier in the year, too, during the Legislative Yuan elections in January, the Taiwanese public had failed to turn up in sufficient numbers for the results of two rival referendums on anti-corruption to be treated as valid. The previous instance of a referendum being held during the presidential elections was in 2004 when the DPP-sponsored ‘defensive referendums’ on how Taiwan should pursue its relations with China in the face of the Chinese missiles aimed against the island, also failed due to insufficient voter turnout.

Referendums in the East Asian/Chinese context have a particular relevance, not so much because they are happening in Taiwan but because they involve China and this, at multiple levels. First, of course, the threat posed by Chinese actions to Taiwanese ‘sovereignty’ form the primary causes for the referendums held during the presidential elections in 2004 and 2008; second, as a rising global power, China’s responses are a matter of interest to the rest of the world; and finally – and this is related to the second – China is a large civilizational state that is finding its way once more to the forefront of innovation in a host of fields. To explain the last point a little further, China is presently engaged in a gigantic task not just of economic development and military modernization – these and their corollaries such as the energy resources-related mercantilism that China is engaged in are the most obviously visible characteristics of a rising China. But also, China is a country that is engaged in a massive rethink, a reformulation of not just Marxist thought but also traditional Chinese thinking as well as Western political philosophy. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is of course now well-known, but there are several ideas that China is giving Chinese characteristics to and democracy is one of them. It is in this context that Taiwan’s democratic experience is important. Without doubt, China has learned and is learning from Taiwan as it is from other parts of the world.

Original Article: “The Politics of Referendums in Taiwan,” in Ger Yeong-kuang, Vinod Joseph and Surendra Kumar (eds.), Taiwan in the 21st Century (New Delhi: Viva International, 2009), pp. 12-36.

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