Four referendum questions . . .
Taiwanese voters rejected four referendum questions on Saturday after a contentious campaign, securing a major victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government and dealing a blow to the chief opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). The DPP campaigned against all four measures, while the KMT campaigned in favour of all of them. Two of the referendum questions, namely a ban on U.S. pork products containing a controversial chemical and a proposal to hold referenda at the same time as national elections, were proposed by the KMT. The two others, a proposal to restart a controversial nuclear power plant project and an initiative to move a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal away from a sensitive ecological zone, were launched by civil society groups. Despite the heavy publicity, turnout for the referendum was lower than expected at 41.09 per cent. Even if the referendum questions had been approved, they would have failed to meet the threshold of voter turnout to be legally adopted.
Political and geographic divides . . .
Both the DPP and KMT framed the referendum as a “confidence vote” on the current government. In that respect, the DPP passed the test. However, the stances of various parties and civil society groups complicated the DPP’s victory. Just under a decade ago, the DPP and KMT held the opposite positions on these questions, with the DPP supporting environmental measures and the KMT advocating to remove restrictions on American pork. As a result, labour and environmental groups that traditionally supported the DPP have found themselves opposing that party’s campaign or even joining forces with the KMT. ‘Third force’ parties, which consider themselves outside of the DPP-KMT binary, distinguished themselves from either party by campaigning on the specifics of each referendum question. Furthermore, outside of key DPP strongholds in the middle and south of the island, most counties voted narrowly in favour of all four questions. This geographical divide and the low turnout suggest that the ruling DPP struggles to convert voters beyond its base.
Toward the 2022 local elections . . .
The KMT’s recently elected chair, who saw this referendum as a launching pad for two upcoming by-elections and the 2022 local elections, took responsibility for the defeat and accepted the resignation of his vice-chair, though he himself will not resign. The campaign also revealed fractures within the party, with prominent KMT mayors refraining from participating in rallies or voicing support for the referendum questions. The defeat will also likely cause politicians to hesitate in using referenda and recall initiatives, an emerging feature of Taiwanese politics, as a political strategy. While this referendum’s impact on the balance of power in 2022 remains to be seen, the results demonstrate the enduring importance of domestic issues in Taiwan’s politics, even as battles over Taiwan’s international status spark headlines worldwide.