Mark Valencia: Sorting Out Taiwan's Referendum

Date: 03-18-2004

TAIPEI (March 18) -- Taiwan's presidential election puts the Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui–bian, against the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. But the accompanying national referendum has become as significant and contentious as the election itself. Whatever the outcome, there will still be plenty of room to disagree on the referendum's meaning and its implications for both domestic and foreign policy.

The referendum asks two seemingly simple questions:

1. The people of Taiwan insist that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should Communist China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and renounce the use of force against Taiwan, would you agree that the government should acquire more advanced anti-missile systems to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?

2. Would you agree that the government should engage in negotiations with Communist China on the establishment of a cross-strait "peace and stability" framework for interaction, in order to build cross-strait consensus and the welfare of people on both sides?

The referendum has been publicly opposed by 16 countries, most notably China and the United States, who fear that a "yes" vote will be interpreted as a mandate to proceed toward independence. This could in turn trigger use of force by China, which could draw the United States into the conflict.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which initiated the referendum, denies this. Parris Chang, a DPP member of Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, argues that it and the process itself is designed to build a consensus of identity and to deepen democracy by enhancing the engagement and participation of Taiwan's citizens in public affairs. The DPP also says that it needs the mandate to purchase weapons and to demonstrate to China and the rest of the world that Taiwan's people have the will to defend their fledgling democracy and to determine their own destiny. It would also, not coincidentally, give business to U.S. companies and respond to the U.S. complaint that Taiwan expects the United States to defend it but has done little to help itself militarily.

Dr. Bill Sun, a Kuomintang (KMT) member of Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, counters that the referendum is unconstitutional and illegal and is really just an election ploy to drum up support for the DPP's presidential ticket. Further, he maintains that regardless of who wins the presidency and of the outcome of the referendum, these provisions will be implemented. Moreover, the KMT considers the referendum irresponsible because it is unnecessarily divisive and risky to relations with China and the United States. It has thus called for a boycott of the ballot.

If the DPP is using the referendum as a political gimmick it may have badly miscalculated. First of all it would require 50 percent approval of all eligible voters or nearly 8.25 million votes -- a high threshold, especially since the KMT has called for a boycott of this particular ballot. This means that voter turnout will be crucial in order for the referendum to pass.

But more troubling would be the difficulty in sorting out and interpreting the results. There are nine possible combinations of votes: yes or no on each of the two questions plus the options of not taking one or both ballots. If the referendum fails altogether it could be considered a vote of no confidence in Chen's major policies, regardless of whether he wins the presidential election. On the other hand, a "yes" vote on both questions would demonstrate support for Chen's policies and some fear, embolden him to move Taiwan close to de jure independence. It would say that the majority of voters are cautious optimists who feel that cross-strait dialogue is important but that upgrading Taiwan's defenses must be carried out simultaneously as a hedge against the worst scenario.

If the first question fails, but the second passes, it could mean that the majority of voters are doves who support dialogue but oppose military buildup or a military solution to cross-strait problems.

If the first question passes and the second fails, it implies that "hawks" are in the ascendancy. They support a self-defense buildup and reject at least for now serious dialogue with China.

If the majority of voters mark "no" on both questions it could mean support for the status quo -- neither enhanced dialogue nor a defense buildup.

Perhaps the more likely outcome is failure to achieve the 50 percent threshold of all eligible voters. But it is not clear what this would mean -- that the questions confused the majority, that they had no opinion, or that the KMT boycott was successful.

These are just some of the possible interpretations. To say that the referendum is complicated and confusing is an understatement. Pity the poor average voters who may well not fully understand the nuances and potential significance of their ballots. As the executive director of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Madame May Sing Yang, puts it, "Our democracy is not yet well developed. We are making up the rules while the game is being played."

This is painfully obvious. But the problem is that the referendum process and results may backfire on its proponents and be both domestically and internationally divisive.

Editor's Note: Mark Valencia, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center who specializes in maritime policy and international relations in Asia, was one of 15 Americans invited by the Taiwan government to observe the Taiwan presidential election and referendum on March 20. The U.S. delegation has been meeting this week with prominent political and academic leaders, visiting different political party headquarters, and observing political rallies.

Mark Valencia can be reached at 808-944-7247 starting Monday, March 22, or email

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center