Public Referenda: Tools in the Service of Presidential Elections
China Times editorial
translated by Bevin Chu
April 19, 2007
As the year end election approaches, several referenda related issues have been dusted off and added to the political agenda. One issue is whether presidential elections should be held concurrently with legislative elections. A second issue is whether presidential and legislative elections should be held concurrently with public referenda. A third issue is whether the referendum law should be amended, and if so, how. These issues, which have surfaced one after the other recently, obviously interest the ruling party.
Regarding the question of whether the presidential elections, legislative elections, and public referenda should be held concurrently, the Executive Yuan has said it hopes they can be. The ruling party hierarchy is already planning to push for a three in one election. Regarding the referendum laws, President Chen has hinted that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) proposes to amend them, and hopes to drastically lower the threshold for initiating referenda, widen the scope of issues that may be voted on, change the right of initiative, and eliminate constraints upon the executive. The proposal that the threshold for a public referendum be reduced to only one hundred persons has yet to clear consultations between the ruling government, the legislature, and the various political parties. Referenda topics the DPP have proposed include investigating KMT party assets and joining the United Nations using the name "Taiwan."
Public referenda are one of many mechanisms for bringing about democracy. They are an important means of revitalizing democratic pluralism. The advocacy and promotion of public referenda on Taiwan is something we should welcome with open arms. Unfortunately public referenda on Taiwan have degenerated into a tool for winning elections, rather than a means of enhancing the quality of democracy. In other words, whether to hold a referendum, how to hold a referendum, when to hold a referendum, and why one should hold a referendum, hinge on whether they help win elections, especially presidential elections, because presidential elections are the elections that most affect the power of the ruling regime. Public referenda have been transformed into a tool for winning elections, instead of means of seeking social consensus. This distinction must not be overlooked by anyone concerned about the future of democracy on Taiwan.
Elections are mechanisms for the realization of democracy. To link public referenda with presidential or legislative elections however, is unprecedented among democratic countries. That such a procedure increases the turnout for public referenda is something everyone understands. However elections are not the sum total of democracy, nor should they be. The foolish linkage of elections with public referenda, and the simplistic equation of democracy with voting, assuming that everything can and ought to be decided by a vote, that if all questions are decided by a vote, democracy has been realized, reveal a blind spot among advocates of democracy on Taiwan.
Equating elections with democracy is a form of blindness. Voting is merely part of the democratic process, a problem solving method of last resort. A more mature democracy seeks social consensus and social harmony via communication and debate. If one fails to understand the need for rational communication and patient debate, but pursues only electoral victories, partisan quid pro quo, and jockeying for power, then the democracy one brings into being may appear healthy from the outside, but will be rotten to the core.
If the only time that Taiwan brings up the issue of public referenda is every four years, during presidential elections, and if politicians champion public referenda solely as a means of winning elections, then public referenda are pointless. If the threshold for a public referendum is reduced to only one hundred persons, we forsee a whole range of public referenda diluting the already thin air of democratic debate. If public referenda are merely political ploys that lead to ideological impasse and partisan bickering, then Taiwan's public referenda will remain empty rituals incapable of lending legitimacy to its system of democracy. If the ruling party plays the public referendum card every time a presidential election rolls around in order to seize or maintain political power, then it is unqualified to claim that it is championing democracy.
After all, the legitimacy of a democratic political system does not depend upon the number of votes cast. The legitimacy of a democratic political system depends upon political leaders who champion rational thought and responsible debate about matters affecting the community, who seek consensus from all walks of life in order to create a harmonious society.
During the last presidential election the public underwent a traumatic experience. In the years since, the ruling regime has learned nothing from the experience. Three years later, nothing has changed, everything is as it was. The referendum process remains riddled with defects. The neutrality of the Central Election Committee remains in question. A successful public referendum remains a chimera. Referendum proposals include ad hoc demands for the amending of laws for flagrantly partisan motives, and tired election ploys familiar to the man in the street. With referenda like these, how can the ruling regime expect to win the hearts and minds of the political opposition and society at large? How can it persuade the public to participate in them? All we can expect is a political sham that delights politicians even as it increases voter alienation and provokes public disgust.
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