Referendum results positive for Taiwan’s government
21 Dec 2021|

On 18 December, Taiwanese voters went to the polls to vote on four referendum questions. Referendums have sometimes been a contentious aspect of Taiwan’s democratic system. Their provision is in the Republic of China constitution, but they weren’t enacted until 2003, to which both Beijing and Washington objected at the time due to their potential to mobilise public sentiments on a vote about national sovereignty.

There have been 20 referendum questions put to voters since then. This time, the questions were about activating the Lungmen nuclear reactor, banning the importation of pork containing the additive ractopamine, requiring referendums to be held concurrently with general elections, and relocating the proposed Guantang liquefied natural gas terminal away from the Datan Algal Reef.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government campaigned for the negative for all four questions, while the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) argued for the affirmative. None of the four questions attracted a majority of voters, nor did any of them cross the minimum voter threshold of 25% of eligible voters required for affirmation.

The Lungmen nuclear reactor began construction in 1999. It uses an advanced design, but has been mired in delays, cost overruns, design changes and contractual disputes, as well as political opposition. The reactor is complete, but public opinion turned against its activation after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011. The referendum result is only the most current development in a saga that has beset successive Taiwanese governments and, unless the reactor is demolished, it will continue to do so.

Allowing the importation of pork with ractopamine has been contentious for Taiwan’s farmers and US–Taiwan relations for several years. Ractopamine is a growth promoter banned in many jurisdictions, including the EU and China, but used in the US and Canada. It is also used in the Australian pork industry but strongly opposed by beef producers. The US Trade Representative Office has long been less sympathetic to Taiwan than the State and Defense departments, and pork import restrictions had become a barrier to US–Taiwan trade liberalisation generally and the promise of a bilateral free trade agreement. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government lifted restrictions on US pork in 2020, against public opinion, prompting a vigorous political campaign by the opposition KMT that included party legislators throwing offal from buckets at ruling DPP members in the legislative chamber. The referendum result on this question is a significant win for Tsai and the DPP.

The referendum date question was largely procedural but addressed the status of referendums in Taiwan’s democratic system and the issues of voter turnout, partisan and populist politicisation, and election cost. Referendums can be initiated through the legislature or by the public in a two-stage process. Publicly initiated referendums currently require 1.5% of the total of registered voters, or nearly 300,000 signatures in the second stage to move to a vote. The failure of all four questions will no doubt inform future procedural changes and the use of referendums as a political tactic.

The result of the final question, on the location of the Guantang LNG terminal, will be disappointing for Taiwan’s environmental movement. This question also had the potential to affect Australia–Taiwan relations. Australia is the world’s largest LNG exporter and Taiwan is targeting 50% of its electricity generation to be from LNG by 2025. Relocating the terminal would have delayed its completion by many years, potentially placing this target out of reach. The fight for the Datan reef is undoubtedly not over for activists, but the LNG terminal is also part of the Taiwan government’s plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in part by reducing reliance on coal. This connects the Guantang LNG terminal with the future of the Lungmen nuclear reactor and the broader question of Taiwan’s energy policy.

Taiwan has enormous direct and structural government energy subsidies that have been used as an economic policy tool for decades but are now politically very difficult to reform. Successive Taiwanese governments have struggled with how to manage the costs of these subsidies, although renewable energy and emissions-reduction targets might yet be a mechanism through which reform becomes possible.

Each referendum question will play out in policy for many years, but the immediate impact is political. The campaign tactic of both major parties was to treat the referendums as polls on the government, and in this Tsai and the DPP had another comprehensive victory.

The KMT, which formed out of the groups that overthrew millennia of dynastic rule in China in 1911, has been through many changes in its storied history, but finds itself struggling to be an effective opposition and land political hits against the government in democratic Taiwan today. Last in government from 2008 to 2016 under President Ma Ying-jeou, it emphasised—like many governments at the time—its capacity to build relations with China in the interests of economic prosperity. The Chinese Communist Party and the KMT have an intertwined history of cooperation and violent conflict as rival architects of post-imperial China, and this connection gave the KMT government unique engagement with Beijing.

In the Xi Jinping era, however, and with daily military threats against Taiwan from the PRC, this stance has become unviable. The KMT has pivoted through a range of local and populist issues in response, most notably on US pork imports, but it is struggling against the DPP’s formidable campaign machine and leadership depth.

Washington and Canberra will no doubt be pleased enough that the referendums mean no change in trade policy from Taipei. Beijing, however, will be calibrating policy based on the KMT’s poor showing. In its totalising ideology and historical fixations, the CCP still sees the KMT as part of its narrative of China’s ‘great rejuvenation’. The KMT will endure, but the work it needs to do to return to electoral viability in Taiwan will only take it further away from its place in CCP ideology, especially given China’s direction under Xi.