Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen scored a political victory over the weekend as four referendums backed by the opposition against key policies of her government including allowing US pork imports failed to pass.
The result averts the risk of undermining Tsai’s push for Taiwan’s inclusion in a regional trade pact, closer trade relations with Washington and efforts to switch more power generation from coal to natural gas.
Taipei is pushing for talks with the US on a potential bilateral trade deal, and recently applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Both steps are crucial for Taiwan to prevent China’s efforts at isolating the country from hurting its trade-reliant economy.
For the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s largest opposition party which had campaigned forcefully for the votes as a rejection of Tsai’s government, the outcome marks another devastating defeat following its loss in the January 2020 presidential election.
The four questions on the ballot, two of which were initiated by KMT lawmakers and two others backed by the party, failed both to attract a sufficient turnout and to go the way the party had pushed for.
Just over 40 per cent of voters who went to the polls rejected a proposal to ban imports of meat containing the feed additive ractopamine, which is used to promote growth and muscle leanness.
They also rejected a proposal to restart a mothballed nuclear power plant and move an LNG terminal under construction to avoid impact on an algal reef, with between 51 and 52 per cent of votes cast against it.
A fourth proposal, for referendums to be held concurrently with elections, was defeated with 57 per cent of votes.
Political observers said the outcome reflects a successful mobilisation effort by Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party. Tsai herself had implored people until the final day to “cast four Nos”.
Despite her personal appeals during the campaign for voters to reject all four referendums, Tsai said: “There are no winners or losers in referendums, only the question of the nation’s future path.”
She said in a statement after the polls that the vote had sent the message that the Taiwanese people “want to go out into the world and actively participate in international affairs”.
If the pork import referendum had passed, Tsai’s government could have been forced to reimpose an import ban, a move that trade experts said would have undermined Taiwan’s credibility in international trade organisations.
Apart from the respective issues on the ballot, the vote marked a reduced impact of referendums in Taiwan politics. The DPP, a major force behind introducing elements of direct democracy in the country’s political system, used its legislative majority two years ago to decouple referendums from general elections after the KMT appeared to have benefited more from recent referendums. Saturday’s vote was the first test of the new system.
Eric Chu, KMT chair, said the referendum results had done big damage to Taiwan’s democracy and denounced Tsai as a dictator in the guise of a democracy.
“For Taiwan’s ‘democratic dictatorship’ government, this is a victory, but for every civic group that strives to deepen democracy, for every grassroots citizen, this does very big harm,” he said. “Referendums are dead. After today, it will be very difficult for any referendum to pass under this ‘bird cage’ referendum system.”