by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

AS TAIWAN EXPERT Lawrence Eyton put it in 2003, passage of the Referendum Act was a “landmark in the island’s democratization equal to the 1994 decision to hold direct presidential elections.” The fact that the Taiwanese population has the legal right to hold nationwide referendums to settle political issues is a tremendously powerful political tool.

As such, referendums have been proposed as a means of settling contested public issues ranging from the longstanding debate over Taiwanese independence to cross-strait trade bills. With the view that current benchmarks needed for public referendum are too high and because current referendum regulations do not allow for voting on constitutional issues, such as the territory and name of the nation, pushing for referendum reform has primarily been the domain of pro-independence leaning actors in recent years, however. We can see this with the campaign by Taiwanese youth activism to amend the “Birdcage Referendum Act” (鳥籠公投) and the existence of the longstanding Taiwanese independence organization, the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan, which later gave rise to the Free Taiwan Party.

Members of the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

As goes without saying, a nationwide referendum would be a strong means of asserting that the popular will of the Taiwanese people is pro-independence and against becoming a part of China. However, some political scientists see referendum as possibly being damaging to the institutional stability of Taiwanese government.

Nevertheless, in the past year, we can observe attempts to use the language of referendum by other political actors. In general, the KMT has attempted to imitate past actions of the DPP and Taiwanese youth activism in the hopes that this will allow issues of importance to the KMT to gain widespread popular support, the way that the Sunflower Movement was instrumental in galvanizing opposition to the CSSTA trade bill and began the wave of momentum that led to the victory of the DPP in 2016 presidential and legislative elections.

We can see this, for example, with the KMT’s attempts to mobilize on the issue of American pork, holding phony demonstrations outside the Legislative Yuan in imitation of the Sunflower Movement. This can also be seen in the spate of political actors that have tried to storm the Legislative Yuan or undertake some similar occupation of a government building in the hope that an issue will gain the support of the public at large, as with the Sunflower Movement, something anti-marriage equality demonstrators have attempted in recent weeks.

Being thoroughly undemocratic in nature and misunderstanding something about the nature of contemporary Taiwanese democracy, the KMT cannot understand popular outbursts of dissatisfaction against it. The KMT continues to see the Sunflower Movement as orchestrated by the DPP through the use of certain political “techniques,” which it now seeks to imitate with the hope that this will allow it similar success as the DPP in 2016 elections. This continues a tendency of the KMT to imitate street protests as those organized by the DPP in the past, as seen in the red shirt demonstrations that took place during the Chen administration.

Christian anti-marriage equality demonstrators. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

However, in the past month, with both anti-marriage equality demonstrators calling for a referendum on marriage equality and the KMT calling for a public referendum regarding food imports from Fukushima disaster-affected areas in Japan, we can also observe the means by the language of referendum has become an integral part of political discourse in Taiwan—even from those otherwise at loggerheads with independence-leaning and socially progressive Taiwanese youth activism. Sometimes the claim is made that the “silent majority” of society is against marriage equality or food imports from Fukushima disaster-affected areas, but that only a public referendum will allow for this “silent majority” to express themselves.

A referendum being on such issues seems unlikely, when pro-independence political actors themselves have faced an uphill struggle against the high benchmarks of the Referendum Act. Yet perhaps the KMT or anti-marriage equality demonstrators have no real intention of actually campaigning for a public referendum, but merely would like to gesture towards an invisible and likely self-constructed “silent majority” and claim that they have its support.

In particular, the use of this strategy by anti-marriage equality groups has been highly effective in suggesting larger social divisions regarding the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage than probably exists. This has led to backsliding and some reversals of position from legislators who were previously committed to marriage equality legislators. With marriage equality, sometimes it is that the popular will of the Taiwanese public is in favor of something, but legislators see differently, and making aspersions about the popular will actually allows legislators to go against the public will. Nevertheless, the popularization of calls for referendum, along with various attempts to occupy the Legislative Yuan, would be another one of the aftereffects of the Sunflower Movement and a way in which its actions have come to powerfully shape political language in Taiwan.