Compared to the established democracies of the West, Taiwan’s is still in its infancy. It did not become a full democracy until 1992, and it only held its first direct presidential election in 1996. And yet, Taiwan’s young democracy has made rapid progress, through social movements, representative politics, the judicial process and now, through direct democracy. In the beginning of this year, it rolled out one of the most citizen-friendly systems for ballot initiatives and referendums, giving its citizens more say than ever in the country’s future.
Taiwan’s road to direct democracy was not an easy one, and it entailed some hard-won lessons. One of the biggest barriers to the success of direct democracy was stringent thresholds on citizen lawmaking. Taiwan began its experiment with direct democracy in 2003, allowing citizens to vote on ballot initiatives and in referendums. But the process was severely constrained by high signature requirements — roughly 93,000 were needed to simply propose a nation-wide ballot measure and another 940,000 were required for the proposed measure to appear on the ballot. Afterward, half of the electorate (about 9.4 million eligible voters) had to vote in order for any decision to be considered valid. As a result, only six measures made it to the national ballot in 2004 and 2008, and all of them were proposed by either the president or backed by one of the major political parties. None of those measures reached the minimum turnout as many voters abstained.
After years of advocacy and debate, Taiwan’s ballot initiative and referendum reform finally kicked off in January 2018 when the revised Referendum Act took effect. The new act, made possible because the pro-referendum Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) controls both the legislative and the executive branches, significantly lowered the barriers to citizen-initiated ballot measures. It drastically reduced the number of signatures required to propose a nation-wide ballot (to a mere 1,900) and for a proposed measure to appear on the ballot (to about 282,000). Minimum turnout is now only a quarter of all eligible voters (roughly 4.9 million people). In addition, the new law lowered the voting age for referendums from 20 to 18 years.
As a result of these reforms, there has been an outpouring of ballot proposals since January — a total of 37 so far, 20 of which were allowed to circulate for signatures. In the upcoming election season in November, all eyes will be on the three ballot proposals that have been filed and circulated on same-sex marriage (one for and two against), as well as two conflicting proposals on sexual-orientation education at school. Another prominent measure that is likely to appear on the November ballot involves Taiwan’s official name in international sporting events such as the Olympics. The proposal, pushed forward by Taiwanese pro-independence groups, asks for sports teams to be formally referred to as representing “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” which is the status quo that Beijing prefers as it implies that Taiwan is a part of China. Beijing has retaliated against the proposal by revoking the right of Taichung, a central Taiwanese city, to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.
It is important to note, however, that while more political outsiders are now initiating ballot proposals, political parties and politicians remain major players in Taiwan’s referendum game. These political insiders are motivated to use referendums to pursue their policy goals and to energize their electoral base, and they are resourceful in getting the required signatures. Of the 37 proposals filed this year, at least five were backed by political parties. The main opposition party, the Kuomintang, has filed and circulated three ballot proposals, and KMT-affiliated politicians are behind several other ballot proposals as well. Controversies have arisen over the electoral integrity of the referendum process, however, as there are allegedly systemic irregularities and forgeries in the signatures that the KMT submitted.
Insider power is why it is important that the review of ballot proposals is impartial. Before a ballot proposal can be circulated for qualifying signatures, it must be cleared by an administrative body, which determines whether a proposal is constitutional or adheres to a single subject, among other considerations. Under the old law, the Referendum Review Committee was appointed the gatekeeper, but it consisted of a board of politically-appointed experts. Unsurprisingly, it was criticized for being partisan.
In 2010, for example, when pro-China Ma Ying-jeou was president, the review committee disqualified a proposed vote on an unpopular, Ma administration deal with Beijing that many Taiwanese feared would further their country’s economic dependence on China. Suffice it to say, the general public found the legal grounds for the committee’s dismissal shaky and unconvincing. The January 2018 reforms have now abolished the Referendum Review Committee, giving the authority to the Central Election Commission instead. With its proud tradition of being an impartial and independent election administrator, the election commission is expected to be a more neutral gatekeeper of the referendum process.
While there are many ways that Taiwan can further improve its foray into direct democracy, the crucial changes this year have broken the metaphoric birdcage that once constrained the public’s direct role in democratic self-governance. Voting on a plethora of ballot measures has become the new norm, and the election commission needs to go the extra mile to ensure that voting and vote counting are properly managed on election day. Now that citizen lawmakers are in the driver’s seat, they owe their fellow citizens informed and sound decisions — decisions that further the common good rather than special interests.
Yen-Tu Su is an associate research professor at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica.