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Tsai’s High Stakes On Taiwan’s Upcoming Referendum – Analysis

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By Bill Sharp*

Taiwan will vote on four referendum items on 18 December, the result of which could make or break the remainder of President Tsai Ing-wen’s time in office. The referendum was rescheduled from 28 August by the Central Election Commission due to the spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan.

Taiwan is now at level three of its four-level warning system, resulting in an island-wide soft lockdown. While 31 per cent of the population have received one inoculation against COVID-19, only 1.6 per cent are fully vaccinated. Further complicating the situation, Taiwan is wrestling with a spike in infections due to the Delta variant.

Looking for ways to win back public support, the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) led the organisation of the four referendum issues. Concerned that the COVID-19 situation would keep voters at home, the KMT had hoped for a rescheduled referendum. A higher voter turnout could glean the KMT additional support that they could carry into the 2022 local elections, known as the nine-in-one elections (NIOE), and the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.

The referendum will deal with four issues: nuclear power, the Datan algal reef, US pork imports and future referendum dates.

The first question is concerned with the future of nuclear power in Taiwan. The island’s power infrastructure is out of date and a shortage of power has negatively impacted the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, a key driver of Taiwan’s high-tech economy. The lack of adequate power is concerning other companies that are looking at Taiwan as a potential investment destination.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is committed to a policy of eliminating nuclear energy by 2025. Those opposed to nuclear power are fearful that an accident similar to the Fukushima Daichi meltdown in 2011 could happen in Taiwan if it doesn’t wean itself off nuclear power.

Meanwhile the KMT supports nuclear power and cites periodic blackouts, growing energy costs and increased electricity demand as reasons to support continued nuclear power generation.

To increase energy security, the DPP has in part turned to liquefied natural gas (LNG). To store the LNG, the DPP wants to construct an LNG terminal on a reef home to a variety of aquatic wildlife including endangered species. Whether to do so is the second question being brought to the people.

The DPP has typically argued for environmental protection while the KMT is not traditionally seen as a pro-environmental party. But in this case it is the KMT that’s concerned with the protection of Datan algal reef. Perhaps in recognition of the contradictions at play, the DPP has already proposed finding another location for the terminal.

Turning to the third issue, the DPP’s largest referendum struggle could well be the question of US pork imports treated with ractopamine, an additive that enhances leanness. Taiwanese voters are health conscious and previous food safety scams have made them wary.

In August 2020, the Tsai administration elicited wide scale public dismay when it overturned a longstanding import ban on US pork (and some beef parts) in the hope of adding momentum for a free trade agreement with the United States.

Taiwan has a long history of robust civil protest. The outcome of the pork question could spark demonstrations that may adversely impact the ongoing (and oft-stalled) Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) negotiations with the United States. Tsai is hoping that the TIFA negotiations will lead to a US free trade agreement, seen as being crucial in the effort to reduce export dependence on China. A ‘no’ to ractopamine will endanger these negotiations and damage the DPP’s image in the run up to the 2022 NIOE and the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.

During the 2018 NIOE, the KMT benefitted from the scheduling of a referendum alongside the elections. Given that the KMT benefitted from both the election and referendum results, the KMT has sought to weaponise referendums in an effort to make itself more politically competitive. Whether to hold referendums on election days is the fourth question in the upcoming December referendum.

The DPP strategy is to have referendums voted on separately from other elections to avoid a situation similar to the one it experienced in 2018. With its control of the legislature, the DPP can pass any law it wants.

Referendums take control of the lawmaking process out of their hands. To wrest back control, the DPP is looking to hold future referendums separate to elections.

Given the 25 per cent turnout threshold needed for the passage of any referendum, the KMT is looking to achieve concurrent voting to maximise voter turnout in future referendums. The DPP has already squelched a joint attempt by the KMT, New Power Party and Taiwan People’s Party to establish absentee voting.

In the run up to the December referendum, polling suggests that the DPP is in an unenviable position. If the KMT prevails on all four questions, it will strengthen their influence. A KMT sweep could also lead to the resignation of Premier Su Tseng-chang. This would be a loss for the DPP as Su is a highly experienced and effective premier with island-wide connections. A poor result for the DPP at this referendum has the potential not only to cast Tsai as a lame duck but could also ripple into the 2022 NIOE and the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.

*About the author: Bill Sharp is an independent researcher based in Honolulu.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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