March 27, 2013, by Editor

The Nuclear Referendum Issue in Taiwan

By Dafydd Fell.

In late February 2013 the KMT announced its decision to support a national referendum on whether to stop construction of the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Station. This development came as a genuine surprise to this writer.  The question of whether to complete construction of this power station has been the most salient environmental issue in Taiwan’s political scene for the last two decades. In the past the KMT used its majorities in the Legislative Yuan to push through approval for the construction budgets. Back in late 2000 it even used the threat of a presidential recall vote to force the DPP government to resume construction of the plant.

Since the advent of multi-party politics environmental issues have rarely dominated Taiwan’s political agenda. Such issues have instead mainly been influential at the local level. National level politics has tended to concentrate on issues surrounding national identity, cross-Strait relations, economic development, and political corruption. Thus the recent focus on the nuclear referendum represents a major shift in Taiwan’s political agenda and a genuine opportunity for the environmental movement to broaden its appeal.

The decision also suggests a change in the KMT’s attitude towards referendums. Although the KMT did allow the passage of a Referendum Law in 2003, it has tended to be reluctant to see direct democracy in practice. The high voter turnout threshold enshrined in the Referendum Law has led its critics to dub it the “birdcage” law. KMT boycotts of the previous six national level referendums meant that all failed to reach the required turnout of 50%. Similarly it also used its dominance of the Executive Yuan Referendum Review Committee to block the TSU’s proposal for a referendum on ECFA.

A major puzzle to consider is why Ma would agree to this referendum. It comes at a time when Ma and his government are suffering from very low levels of public satisfaction rates. The level of satisfaction has hovered at around 13 percent for almost a year. Such levels of satisfaction appear quite similar to those in Chen’s second term. At least so far there do not seem to be any signs that the referendum proposal has improved voter confidence in the government. I would be interested to hear some readers’ theories to explain the KMT’s decision.

Overall it appears to be a risky move on the part of the KMT. Since the Premier Jiang Yi-hua (江宜樺) has pledged to resign if the referendum succeeds, Ma and the KMT party centre will be viewed as supportive of the nuclear power station. However, we need to remember that public opinion in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster has shifted quite radically on the nuclear issue. Back in late 2000 voters generally accepted the KMT’s developmentalist argument that Taiwan needed nuclear power to remain economically competitive and maintain cheap electricity prices. Surveys suggest that if there had been a referendum at the time a majority would have supported completing construction of the plant. Today surveys show almost 70 percent of voters do not wish to see the power station construction completed and move to operation. Moreover, voter sentiment against the plant is strongest where it is located in the KMT’s heartland of northern Taiwan. Thus the KMT is publically embracing a highly unpopular political position.

Naturally if the KMT decides to initiate a supporter boycott of the referendum vote it would probably be able to prevent the required 50% turnout. Thus even with a majority voting for ceasing construction the referendum would be technically invalid. However, for the KMT to use this as the basis for starting operation of the plant would be an extremely unpopular position.

Another major problem for the KMT is that it is also extremely divisive internally within the party. Many KMT legislators from the north and local executives such as the Taipei mayor are openly opposed to the plant. With the exception of Premier Jiang there is likely to be a shortage of KMT politicians that will openly come out in support of the plant. Thus once the next election campaign begins in earnest in early 2014 the KMT may appear divided.

Even the KMT has gradually shifted its nuclear stance. It has agreed to first phase out the three existing ageing nuclear power stations and it is hard to imagine a fifth nuclear power station being considered. However, the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant has been a core KMT economic pledge of the party for the last two decades. As Nathan Batto has noted, “If the public repudiates 4NPP, they will effectively be saying that the policy the KMT has been doggedly pursuing over the past 20 years was not just wrong, it was so wrong that voters are willing to stomach wasting billions of dollars to reverse it. Don’t think that voters will simply forgive the KMT for all that money.” Thus defeat in the referendum would seriously undermine its morale for the 2014 and 2016 elections and as Batto notes, “if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead.”

One possibility is that the KMT has placed the issue on the agenda to distract attention away from less favourable issues. The fact that Ma was forced to change premiers less than a year into his second term reflects widespread disappointment with government performance so far. Moreover, dissatisfaction is even strong amongst KMT supporters. Another dimension in the loss of popularity since being re-elected has been the impact of the Lin Yi-shih (林益世) corruption scandal that emerged in the summer of 2012. Lin had been the Executive Yuan’s Secretary General and a close associate of Ma’s and the scandal severely hit the KMT’s party image.

As Batto has suggested the only way for the KMT to really profit from the referendum will be to actually win it. However, it will be a genuine challenge to shift public opinion to the required degree by what are already an unpopular president, government and divided party. Naturally the party will try to sway voters by arguing the economic necessity of the plant and how halting construction would lead to power cuts and price rises. Of course it is possible the KMT will manage to persuade the public. We should recall that Ma did manage to recover from satisfaction rates of about 16% in late 2009 to win re-election in 2012.

Lastly the referendum presents challenges to the anti nuclear community in Taiwan. Although the DPP is likely to play a leading role in supporting the referendum bid, it also has a chequered record on the issue. It failed to stop the project when in office and was unable to engineer a referendum at the time. This record has led many in the environmental movement to be highly suspicious of the DPP’s green credentials. The salience of the nuclear issue this year presents the environmental movement with the chance to raise environmental awareness and to develop as a political force. In 2012 Taiwan’s Green Party gained 1.7 percent of the national vote, coming in as the fifth most popular party. The politicization of the nuclear issue offers it the possibility to emerge as a party that actually can win seats in the same was as Green Parties have in Europe. It would be a major development for Taiwan’s party system to see a party in parliament not based on the national identity spectrum.

Dafydd Fell is Reader in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is the author of Government and Politics in Taiwan.

Posted in Taiwan