Taiwan asked voters 10 referendum questions and got some unexpected answers

Citizens queue to cast their votes at a polling station for a referendum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov 24, 2018.
Citizens queue to cast their votes at a polling station for a referendum in Kaohsiung, Taiwan on Nov 24, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (NYTIMES) - When Taiwan passed legislation last year that made it easier to propose and pass referendum questions, President Tsai Ing-wen called it a "historic moment" in the self-ruling island's evolution from a military dictatorship to an open democracy.

She got more than she bargained for on Saturday (Nov 24), when voters were asked a record 10 questions.

Their answers simultaneously undermined Taiwan's reputation as one of Asia's most progressive societies, angered many young Taiwanese and inadvertently assisted Beijing's claims that Taiwan is part of its territory.

One of the biggest issues in the election campaign - and the subject of half the referendum questions - was gay rights.

Voters expressed overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage, despite a court ruling last year that limiting marriage to heterosexual couples was unconstitutional.

Voters also supported the removal of content about homosexuality from primary school textbooks.

Many in Taiwan, especially young voters, were stunned by the referendum results, including Mr Mike Zhang, a 25-year-old project manager in Taipei.

"We thought we lived in a progressive and open country," he said, "but after seeing the disparity in this referendum, we discovered we were living in a place that we didn't recognise."

While the liberal values of Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, which has been in power since 2016, fared poorly, the referendums themselves served a larger purpose as one of the few tools Taiwan has to stave off mainland China.

Among the referendum questions, however, was the issue of what Taiwan should be called at the Olympic Games and other international sporting events.

In a 1981 deal with the International Olympic Committee, Taiwan agreed to compete under the name "Chinese Taipei". But in recent years the people of Taiwan have increasingly sought to assert their identity, and a referendum question asked if the island should compete as "Taiwan" instead.

That proposal failed after a campaign warning that doing so might lead to Taiwan's being banned from Olympic competition under Chinese pressure.

The referendum result could allow Beijing to argue that the people of Taiwan are quite happy to be identified as Chinese.

China's Communist Party claims Taiwan as its territory, although it has never ruled the island.

The government in Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is the remnant of the Kuomintang government that fled to the island in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in China's civil war.

The Kuomintang made Taiwan an authoritarian party-state, declaring martial law that lasted until 1987.

Democratisation in the 1990s paved the way for greater freedom in discussing Taiwan's history, as well as the emergence of a Taiwanese identity separate from the Chinese one that the Kuomintang, which sought for decades to retake China, had forced upon the Taiwanese people.

Few Taiwanese refer to the island as the Republic of China except on official occasions, but the mainland government points to the name as supporting its territorial claim.

Beijing has said that any official name change to "Taiwan" would be met with a military attack.

 
 
 

Partly for that reason, Taiwan's referendum law prohibits the public from proposing questions on issues of national sovereignty like the island's name, flag and territory.

The President can, however, put such issues to referendum in existential emergencies, like an imminent takeover by mainland China.

While the Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally favoured independence, it is not seeking to hold an independence referendum.

But by holding votes on other issues and making them a part of Taiwan's political culture, the government is creating the infrastructure and legitimacy that would be needed to hold an emergency referendum in the future.

"Saturday's referendum furthers a long-held DPP goal to get referendums institutionalised," said Mr Michael Fahey, a legal consultant based in Taipei.

"Major sections of the DPP always wanted to have some kind of referendum law in case there ever needs to be a referendum on self-determination, there will be a mechanism in place for doing that."

Ms Kolas Yotaka, a government spokeswoman and former legislator who voted for the new referendum law last year, said the public had multiple complaints about the referendums on Saturday, including the large number of questions being asked.

"We think next time we'll need to improve explanations of the content of the referendums," Ms Kolas said in an interview.

"We also didn't have enough time to have enough public debate."

The referendum questions on gay rights were the subject of a well-funded and highly organised campaign led by conservative Christians and other groups.

The campaign was characterised by misinformation, the bulk of which was spread online, including messages warning of an AIDS epidemic and low birthrates, or that educating students about different sexual orientations would influence their sexual choices.

The Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan, an alliance of gay rights organisations, said the government had not done enough to push back against online misinformation that it said "frightened and manipulated" voters.

"As the government sat by and watched the dissemination of misinformation, LGBTQ+ groups and civic organisations fought an uphill battle that was unfairly manipulated by money, power and politics," the group said in a statement.

The government now has three months to present bills reflecting the referendum outcomes.

While the vote against same-sex marriage does not affect the court ruling, it could make lawmakers more inclined to offer same-sex couples a separate civil union status rather than the same legal status that heterosexual married couples have.

Three of the referendum questions concerned energy policy, with voters supporting a reduction in the use of coal and a halt to construction of coal-fired power stations.

They also voted to repeal legislation that would have halted all nuclear power production by 2025, driven in part by concern that without nuclear power, air pollution would worsen in southern Taiwan, which supplies the majority of electricity for Taipei and other northern cities.

"The referendums clearly show that Taiwan wants cleaner air and less coal," said Mr Nate Maynard, a consultant for the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, which is based in Taipei.

"Yet the referendum questions never addressed the core of Taiwan's energy problems: opaque policy and artificially cheap energy."

The opposition Kuomintang appears to have benefited from the referendums on issues like same-sex marriage that galvanised conservative voters. The party had a strong showing in local elections that were also held on Saturday.

"The Kuomintang and certain conservative forces very smartly recognised that if they put resolutions together that have strong appeal to certain special interest groups, they might be able to mobilise all those people and hopefully they would be like-minded and cast votes for the KMT candidates," Mr Fahey said.

The Democratic Progressive Party lost the mayoral races in Taiwan's three largest cities, and Ms Tsai, who is planning to seek re-election in 2020, resigned as head of the party when the extent of its losses became apparent.

Ms Kolas said that despite the referendum results, the government was "very happy" to hear the voice of the electorate.

"What's important is to give the people an opportunity to express their opinions," she said.