On January 3, 2018, the revised Referendum Act passed by the Taiwan legislature in December took effect. The revisions carry significant implications for the referenda process in the nation, particularly the lowering of the voting age to 18 from the previous 20 years. In this article, I discuss the changes to the referendum act and its promises for democratic strengthening, political engagement, and political change.
- it reduces the voting age to 18
- it reduces the required number of signatures in the first stage of initiating the proposal of referendum to 0.01 percent of the electorate in the most recent presidential election
- it eliminates the role of the Referendum Review Commission, a committee appointed by the cabinet tasked with examining proposed referenda to reject those topics unworthy of referendum
- it also reduces the required signatures in the second stage of supporting the initiated referendum to 1.5 percent
- it reduces the turnout quorum 25 percent of registered voters, where a majority affirming the referendum means that it passes.
The reduction of the voting age represents a significant change that increases the electorate and empowers youths to participate in established institutions and processes. Youths represent an interesting political demographic. On the one hand, studies report youths are more likely to be politically marginalized and, subsequently, disengaged; on the other hand, recent youth-led protests – including the 2014 Sunflower movement and the 2018 protests against labor law revisions in Taiwan – highlight that they represent a significant portion of “critical citizens”, i.e., citizens who question government authority or adopt unconventional participation, including protests, to influence government policies. In lowering the voting age, then, the Referendum Act provides the opportunity to engage youths in critical, institutionalized democratic procedures.
Procedurally, the other changes to the Referendum facilitate the process of direct democracy. Prior to the revisions, the 2003 Referendum Act stipulates that the initiation and support of a referendum are 0.1 percent and 5 percent respectively of the electorate in the most recent presidential election. Further, amendments must be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters at a referendum held in six months from the public announcement of the revisions. These stringent conditions meant that none of the six referenda proposed since the 2003 Act passed; opponents to a referendum need only boycott it to kill its adoption. The lowering of the thresholds, as well as the elimination of the Referendum Review Commission, relax the procedures to enable more political expression, policies, and change through plebiscites.
What are some political changes? Domestically, there have been calls for a plebiscite to introduce constitutional changes to improve governance or representation, including achieving a “more efficient government.” How that will be achieved is unclear; some – such as President Tsai Ing-wen — contend that it is through separation of powers; others – such as the former governing party, the Kuomintang – advocate for parliamentarism; still others argue that the current semi-presidentialism system works best.
Internationally, many expect the Referendum Act will change Taiwan’s relations with mainland China. For instance, there is a call to adopt a referendum that will change Taiwan’ designation at the 2020 Olympics from Chinese Taipei to Team Taiwan. And, many more are concerned that there will be a push for independence or unification with China.
The revision of the Referendum Act takes the important step to pave for democratic deepening, political engagement, and even change. Whatever may realized, it is clear that the revisions are fundamental towards defining new political dynamics