Referenda May Not Be the Best Mechanism for Deciding Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

Referenda May Not Be the Best Mechanism for Deciding Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

Referenda May Not Be the Best Mechanism for Deciding Taiwan’s Foreign Policy

While candidates for Taiwan’s 2022 local elections have not yet fully started their campaigns, there is one looming political event that has been receiving widespread media attention: a referendum on importing US beef and pork treated with ractopamine. (This is one of four referenda originally scheduled for August 28, which have been postponed to December 18 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.) Voters in Taiwan will decide whether they support easing restrictions on US beef and pork imports, and the result of the referendum is likely to have implications for any prospective US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The upcoming December vote follows a long history in Taiwan of using referenda to decide delicate foreign policy issues. However, amendments to the referendum law in 2017 have exacerbated the strategic and diplomatic challenges raised by referenda on foreign policy issues. For the protection of its critical foreign policy interests, the Taiwanese government should consider whether to make further changes to the referendum law.

The Referendum Act

Taiwan’s referendum system was put in place with passage of the Referendum Act (公民投票法) of 2003. The stated goal of this act was to allow “citizens to exercise their direct civil rights.” This version created steep hurdles for a referendum to pass the vote by stipulating that a provision could only pass if voter turnout was at least 50 percent of the last presidential election’s turnout. The law also required signatures from five percent of the electorate to get a referendum on the ballot. Proponents of direct democracy criticized this original bill for its high threshold margins after seeing none of the first referenda votes meet the 50 percent turnout mark. Thus, none of the first referenda votes passed. Therefore, Taiwan’s government felt changes were needed to move the country towards empowering its people to exercise direct democracy. Taiwan later revised the Referendum Act in 2017 and lowered the thresholds. Today, only 1.5 percent of the electorate’s signatures are required to get a referendum on the ballot, and 25 percent of the voters must turnout for the vote. The revision also lowered the voting age on referenda from 21 to 18 years of age, allowing more Taiwanese citizens to vote.

In Taiwan, there are three types of issues on which referenda can occur: referenda on laws, initiatives on legislative principles, and initiatives or referenda on “important policies.” The author assumes that foreign policy falls into the category of “important policies,” since most foreign policies are not codified in law but are instead made up of more abstract policy initiatives. While technically all of Taiwan’s referenda are legally binding, for some issues, Taiwanese legal experts say that “authorities have the leeway to keep the results from ever being implemented.” In reality, only referenda on laws are truly legally binding, as the outcome of referendum votes on these issues goes into effect three days after the vote. For referenda on “important policies,” the law stipulates that “the President or the authority shall take necessary disposition to realize the content of the proposal of [a] referendum.” Because these votes are not legally binding, Taiwanese attorney Lu Chiou-yuan (呂秋遠) compared the most recent referendum campaign to a NTD $1.5 billion survey, implying that the primary use for these referenda is to serve as a public opinion poll. The only accountability mechanism for voters to ensure politicians carry out these referendum outcomes lies through the electoral process. If it is important enough for voters to see these outcomes carried out, they can vote politicians out of office in the next election if they fail to deliver.

Referenda in Taiwan

In Taiwan, there have been three election cycles in which referenda questions were on the ballot, including in 2004, 2008, and 2018. While these referendum issues did include domestic issues, such as whether same-sex marriage should be legal and whether Taiwan should continue using nuclear power, the most controversial referenda have focused on foreign policy issues. In the very first set of referenda in Taiwan in 2004, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) proposed a referendum to decide whether Taiwan should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen the island’s self-defense capabilities against China.These referenda infuriated Beijing. China saw it as a “precedent for a plebiscite on sovereignty” and warned that the vote could spark a war. US President George W. Bush, who was concerned about being dragged into the conflict with China during his administration’s Global War on Terrorism, warned Chen against upsetting the status quo. The vote ultimately failed to reach the turnout threshold required to make the result binding, with only a 45 percent turnout. However, of those who voted, nearly 93 percent voted in favor of the referendum.

Four years later, Taiwanese voters were faced with another referendum vote on an issue with international implications. Two questions were posed in the 2008 elections, both dealing with UN representation. Both the Democratic People’s Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, 中國國民黨) proposed alternative questions for the referendum on what name the government should use to participate in the UN. The DPP-supported question asked: “Do you agree that the government should apply for UN membership under the name ‘Taiwan’?” Meanwhile the KMT-supported question asked: “Do you approve of applying to return to the United Nations and to join other international organizations under the name ‘Republic of China’, or ‘Taiwan’, or other name that is conducive to success and preserves our nation’s dignity?” Regardless of the preference, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) warned Taiwan that it “it cannot unilaterally decide its political future.” Washington feared that China’s warnings might lead to a military attack on Taiwan, so it stationed two aircraft carriers to the east of the island to respond to any “provocative situation.” In the end, only 35 percent voted, and neither question in the referendum reached the required turnout threshold. It is likely that opponents of each question simply chose not to answer it since the DPP’s question had 94 percent of voters expressing support, while the question proposed by the KMT had 87 percent vote in favor. The results suggest that Taiwanese voters were split on the issue.

In the 2018 referendum vote, foreign policy issues played a less contentious but still important role. Some foreign policy issues that were addressed in referenda included Taiwan’s title for competing in the Tokyo Olympics and food imports from Fukushima. In the lead-up to the vote, China warned that Taiwan “could lose its right to compete [in the Olympics] if it tries to change its name” from Chinese Taipei (中華台北). Beijing also pressured the East Asian Olympic Committee to prevent Taichung from hosting the 2019 East Asian Youth Games, an outcome that undid years of work by Taiwanese officials. After Taiwanese voters chose to maintain the ban on food from Fukushima, Japan’s de-facto Ambassador to Taiwan Mikio Numata said he felt deep regret that “a political tool [was used] to undermine the sound relationship between Japan and Taiwan and economic exchanges.” Tokyo even considered initiating a dispute complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) over this ruling, suggesting that Taiwan’s voters did not recognize how this referendum could potentially break international laws.

Media outlets and political parties are currently gearing up for the next round of referendum questions. The most widely discussed referendum question involves importing US pork and beef treated with the additive ractopamine (originally scheduled to take place on August 28, but now moved to December). President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) eased the ban on such imports in 2020; previously, this ban had been seen as preventing talks on a US-Taiwan free trade agreement. While observers in the United States and abroad celebrated this move, Taiwanese citizens were more split. DPP supporters defended the action for its potential to strengthen economic ties with Washington, while KMT supporters protested the weakening of food safety requirements. The KMT thus proposed tackling this issue through a referendum. However, the outcome could have foreign policy implications and could potentially work against Taipei’s interests. If referendum results lead to the ban’s reinstatement, it could hinder chances for a US-Taiwan FTA in the near future. Moreover, Taiwan’s officials could feel politically constrained by such a referendum outcome. On the other hand, Taipei could also use the results to its advantage when negotiating an FTA with the United States. The two sides last met on June 30th when they held talks through the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which could lay the groundwork for a more formalized US-Taiwan FTA. If voters in Taiwan vote to block US beef and pork imports, Taiwanese officials could bring the results of the referendum to show Washington that this is not an issue on which their citizens are willing to compromise.  


Taiwan should consider amending the Referendum Act to prevent critical foreign policy issues from becoming hyper-politicized through the referenda process. Matt Qvortrup, an expert in referenda at Coventry University, has argued that, for direct “democracy to work, it has to be limited to relatively few issues.” Perhaps, in order to make direct democracy perform better, foreign policy can be taken off the table. Diplomatic relationships take years to develop. When partners perceive slights, such as import bans or attempts to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, there are likely to be ramifications, both diplomatically and militarily. In foreign policy matters, Taiwan should consider if it makes sense for voters to have a constraining influence if these referenda on “important issues” mainly serve as public opinion polls.

Additionally, if Taiwan cannot keep critical foreign policy issues out of the referendum process, it should consider raising the thresholds for votes to pass to at least ensure that the decision will be made by a more representative sample of the people. The fact that, at current thresholds, 13 percent of voters (half of the required 26% turnout) could potentially disrupt US-Taiwan relations and the delicate cross-Strait relationship is alarming. Whether exclusively for foreign policy questions or for all referenda, Taiwan should return to the thresholds in the 2003 Referendum Act. While certainly not perfect, at least 26 percent of voters (half of the proposed 50% required turnout) would need to agree on the trajectory of these bilateral relationships. This need not necessarily hamper direct democracy: in the United Kingdom, turnout for the Brexit vote was 72 percent, suggesting that a large majority felt strongly one way or the other. Insisting that a more significant percentage of the Taiwanese electorate vote on critical foreign policy issues may help ensure a more thorough foreign policy decision-making process.

These changes may be denounced by direct democracy advocates who argue that implementing these changes return the country to a situation where all referenda are doomed to fail. Nonetheless, the failure of the first two referenda votes may not be an indictment of the direct democracy process in Taiwan. Instead, it could be a sign that enough voters felt it was not in their immediate interest to have referenda votes constrain delicate diplomatic relationships. As Taiwanese voters look to the upcoming referendum on US pork and beef imports, Taipei must consider whether these sensitive foreign policy issues could be better left out of the referendum process.

The main point: The upcoming referendum vote in December on US pork and beef imports follows a long history in Taiwan of using referenda to address foreign policy questions. Because the outcome of this vote, and others like it, has repercussions for Taiwan’s economic and strategic positioning globally, the Taiwanese government needs to consider whether referenda are the best way of addressing these issues.