Environment & energy, Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

3 March 2020

If Taiwan’s ruling party is to end nuclear power on the island, it must avoid polarising the electorate over the issue and present its citizens with objective facts, Shangpo Hsieh writes.

Taiwan’s 2020 Presidential Election produced a surprising outcome. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election with 8.17 million votes, the highest number in Taiwan’s history since its first direct presidential election in 1996. Few predicted such an outcome a year ago.

Now that the electoral fervour has cooled down, it is time to think about the challenges she will encounter during her upcoming second term of office. In addition to dealing with the cross-strait tension widely covered by the media, she faces several challenges on the domestic front. Among them, nuclear power certainly deserves attention.

Nuclear power was once Taiwan’s main energy source, but it was overtaken by coal-fired power in the 1990s, and has been prone to giving rise to controversies. This is evidenced by repeated efforts by the main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to boycott the 2025 Nuclear Free Homeland project.

The project, first announced during the 2012 Presidential Election, is the embodiment of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s anti-nuclear power stance, which was formed on its establishment in the mid-1980s. 2025 Nuclear Free Homeland envisions renewable energy as the eventual replacement for nuclear power.

More on this: The nuclear option

To reach that goal, President Tsai Ing-wen enacted several laws and policies when she assumed office in 2016, including the Electricity Act, which contained one provision stipulating the termination of all nuclear power generation plants by 2025. Ever since, this position has polarised Taiwan’s political elites.

The DPP’s project has earned the praise of environmental groups, but has worried the business community, foreign chambers of commerce, and several local civic groups.

Their concerns include rising electricity prices and the risk of an unstable power supply, among others.

To boycott the DPP government’s energy policy, some civic groups, with the KMT’s assistance, filed referendum petitions, thanks to the favourable environment the Referendum Act has created since 2018. National Referendum Proposition 16 aimed to repeal the controversial provision of the Electricity Act, and succeeded in doing so. Since then, the KMT and pro-nuclear energy advocacy coalitions have claimed that the referendum result shows that the majority of the Taiwanese people want nuclear power to continue.

However, any argument that relies on the referendum outcome is a weak position, because around 45 per cent of eligible voters did not cast votes in that referendum. To have a better understanding of Taiwanese’s attitudes toward the 2025 Nuclear-Free Homeland project, observers must look to public polls, and the survey the Taiwan Institute for Governance and Communication Research conducted before the voting date.

More on this: Taiwan and South Korea head in different directions

The survey outcomes seem to support the pro-nuclear energy advocacy coalitions’ claims. Some 52 per cent of respondents prefer continuing to use nuclear power to generate electricity, and 63 per cent of civil servants shared that preference.

Importantly though, these analyses also reveal that attitudes towards nuclear power are significantly associated with which political party a person supports. Which news channels a person watches is also correlated.

This suggests that nuclear power has become a left-right issue. It also implies citizens’ inclinations to receive messages from specific channels that opposite groups seldom watch.

Political polarisation easily leads to the formation of highly homogeneous groups, which are prone to self-closing and generating hostility, because members with similar views can share false, biased, and discriminatory information with each other, building ‘bubbles’ and further strengthening polarisation.

Such an effect was clear in recent Taiwanese public reaction to German nuclear power policy. Joachim Pfeiffer, the energy affairs spokesman for Germany’s ruling political party, stated he thought that it was wrong to pull out of nuclear power last December.

Pfeiffer’s statement contradicted current German government policy and triggered his government to make corrections, reiterating that its plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 remains unchanged.

Nevertheless, KMT politicians and pro-nuclear power groups utilised this news to question the 2025 Nuclear-free Homeland policy.

Their claims were circulated via social media and communication apps and covered by several news channels. This was worrisome, and showed that the spread of misinformation is both a product of, and could worsen political polarisation over nuclear power in Taiwan.

To address this challenge the Taiwanese government, besides continuing to communicate correct and objective information on nuclear policy clearly and neutrally, should also work closely with media corporations preferred by its target population, so it can refute rumors and broadcast news messages from sources these citizens find credible to help eliminate discrimination.

In so doing, the government can ensure that Taiwanese citizens are more likely to receive objective information and the opinions of others on crucial issues like nuclear, potentially neutralising some of the damage extreme polarisation is causing for Taiwan.

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