Taiwan’s touchstone of nationalism

Unpacking the 2018 Referendums

Shangpo Hsieh

Government and governance, Law, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

18 January 2019

Revisions to Taiwan’s Referendum Act give hope to those demanding a name change in the state’s official Olympic title, Shangpo Hsieh writes.

On a busy day for Taiwanese voters on 24 November, citizens not only elected local government leaders and regional parliament members but also decided ten referendum proposals.

Referendum outcomes can reveal true public opinion on specific – and sometimes sensitive – issues in Taiwan.

National identity is one of those delicate issues, and Referendum Proposal Number 13 examined, in a sense, what meaning it holds for Taiwanese citizens.

The Proposal asked, “Do you agree to the use of ‘Taiwan’ when participating in all international sports competitions, including the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics?”

This question refers to the Lausanne Agreement 1981, according to which the national team of the Republic of China must compete under the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ in sporting events.

‘Chinese Taipei’ was a compromise made to settle disputes between Taiwan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It was not, however, a compromise that pleased all Taiwanese citizens.

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Given that no Referendum Act had been enacted under the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (Kuomintang, or KMT) authoritarian rule, the likelihood of a title change was very slim in the past. Demands for a Referendum Act, however, increased from the early 1990s and were finally met in 2000 after Chen Shui-bian assumed office as the first non-KMT president.

Unfortunately, the 2003 Referendum Act was ridiculed for being a “birdcage” act due to its unreasonably harsh requirements for referendums to be proposed and adopted.

For example, Article 10 stipulates that, during the initial application stage, the leading proposer must collect the signatures of at least 0.5 per cent of total eligible voters from the most recent presidential election. Article 12 then demands that more than 5.0 per cent of them endorse the proposal in the following stage. Article 30 vetoes the proposal if the number of casted ballots amount to anything less than half the number of eligible voters.

These strict thresholds were put in place because of Taiwan’s lack of compulsory voting and low turnout rates.

The act’s attempts at increasing democracy in Taiwan were thwarted, however, because the two major political parties – the KMT and the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) – deliberately used referendums as tactical political tools for their own parties’ interests, rather than for consensus convergence.

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As a result, only six referendum proposals were made in the period between 2004 and 2008 – all of which were highly politicised, and none of which were adopted.

In short, both political and statutory factors scuppered Taiwan’s first six referendums.

The 2018 Referendum Act adopted in Taiwan last year is the outcome of decade-long efforts to revise its predecessor. Under the new Act, the leading proposer only needs to collect initial signatures of more than 0.01 per cent of total eligible voters and those of more than 1.5 per cent in the subsequent stage.

Moreover, Article 29 mandates that a proposal be adopted as long as the votes in support of the proposal outnumber those against it and reach at least 25 per cent of the total number of eligible voters.

Comparatively speaking, these requirements are light and have – unsurprisingly – encouraged several civil groups to recently submit applications.

Among the ten referendum proposals announced, Proposal Number 13 was the only one concerning changes to the title ‘Chinese Taipei’. This proposal was made by an alliance of civic groups which started advocacy campaigns following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

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Their advocacy efforts, however, encountered increasing resistance as voting day approached. A group of athletes, including several Olympic medallists, opposed any moves to change the name out of concern that they would be made ineligible to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A warning letter sent from the IOC justified such sentiments, further demonstrating sensitivity and controversy around Taiwan’s official name change.

The referendum outcome satisfied the athletes who made the joint declaration, but also left hope for civil groups advocating the opposite view. The number of ‘no’ votes was around one million – still much fewer than the three million that vetoed two of the other referendums.

This outcome suggests that similar proposals may be adopted in the future should they still exist in two years’ time. Nevertheless, a closer look at results reveals that 18 out of 22 counties and cities had a greater number of votes disagreeing with this change compared to those who favoured it, highlighting the need for better nationwide advocacy campaigns.

The 2018 Referendum Act has created a more favourable environment for advocacy groups. In a sense, Proposal Number 13 is the touchstone of Taiwan’s nationalistic strength. Though the proposal may have failed, the referendum outcomes reveal opportunities for future change.

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