Expert: How consecutive election years may affect the development of democracy in Taiwan

Taiwan will vote on four referendum initiatives on Saturday, including US pork import, which is potentially going to impact Taiwan-US relations, and whether to restart the nuclear power plant no. 4. Some experts believe that Taiwan’s consecutive elections over the past few years may have prevented some important and urgent issues from being addressed by politicians.

DW: Taiwan will be voting on four referendum topics on Saturday, and one of the topics that could have implications for the US — Taiwan relations is the referendum topic on ractopamine pork. How likely do you think the outcome of that referendum will affect US — Taiwan relations?

Lev Nachman: The outcome of these referendums will matter much more than what the political parties are saying. Based on the current poll, it seems like the ractopamine pork referendum is going to pass. In the short term, it’s not going to hurt US-Taiwan relations, because currently, US-Taiwan relations are at an all-time high and the people that are pushing for these close, strong relations are not going to be affected too much by the referendum results.

They are not the ones that are going to care. Six months ago, the outcome may have been a bigger deal but because US-Taiwan relations are so tight right now, in the short term, I don’t think the outcome is going to impact US-Taiwan relations. But when it comes to the USTR and the future of US-Taiwan trade talks, that’s going to be a different story.

The folks that have been hesitant to increase the likelihood of a trade bill with Taiwan will certainly use this as an excuse to say “why do we need to bother with Taiwan when they themselves are making these big deals of not wanting to buy US products.” So in terms of geopolitical and security, the outcome of this referendum isn’t going to have a huge impact.

But when it comes to trade, I think it’ll be a different story because there are people in the US who aren’t so keen on growing relations with Taiwan. I’m sure they are going to use this as a reason why the US doesn’t need to pursue closer relations with Taiwan. I don’t think that’s a majority by any means but this is going to be a talking point for those people.

DW: How much are these referendums about the topics that people are going to be voting for or how much is it about political parties trying to use the referendum as a way to propel their own popularity while hurting the other party?

Lev Nachman: What I think it’s going to happen is that a lot of these referendums are going to pass but I think the big difference between this year and 2018 is that, unlike that year, the DPP is not in the same marginalized position as they were in 2018 and Tsai Ing-wen’s approval rating is also not in the same marginalized position.

If the referendums pass, I don’t necessarily see this as a referendum on the DPP in the same way as it is in 2018. If all of them pass, it’s a bad look but I don’t think it’s going to be as damaging to the DPP as it was in 2018. Ultimately, what matters at this point is not whether the referendums pass or not, but how the parties react to them.

In the same way, as in 2018, all the anti-marriage equality referendums passed, but the DPP passed it without making it the same bill. If the ractopamine pork referendum passes, it’s not a matter of whether it passes or not, but how does the DPP handle it in a way that it still maintains its legitimacy domestically.

If this passes and the DPP handles it well, I don’t think it’s going to hurt them as much. When the DPP is talking about these topics at referendum rallies, they are talking about all the good things that the DPP has done internationally. They are convincing the public to support the DPP because they know what they are doing.

This referendum isn’t happening in the same political context as the referendum did so as a result, I don’t think it has the same weight on each political party as it did before. That being said, this still very much feels like a mid-term to the midterm, and whether or not these things pass or fail, I think it will have a lot of implications for how strategies for the 2022 midterm election will look like.

DW: Is it fair to view this referendum as a way for the KMT to prepare themselves for the midterm election in 2022? How much do you think the referendums have become tools for political parties to adjust their level of support?

Lev Nachman: I think both parties have been really experimenting with what they are going to do in 2022. How the KMT has campaigned will be a sign of things to come, but it’s the same for the DPP. The DPP has really pushed for the young politicians and party members to be at the forefront of the referendum campaigns. I think it means in 2022, the DPP is going to push for young people running for local office.

Referendums and recalls have become such tools in a sense that they are not necessarily being used for what they are intended for and a lot of it has just become trying to generate support for the party or opposition to a party.

On paper, all democracies should have referendums and recalls, because these are good tools. It’s just a matter of when they become the center of attention to democracy, they become distractions. To be honest, it’s not that nuclear power or algae reeves don’t matter. It’s just that in Taiwan in 2021, there are far more pressing issues going on.

The fact that these referendums have taken up so much attention and resources from both political parties and the public, creates a bit of a drain and political fatigue on Taiwanese civil society. Things like wages, housing prices, support for the military are far more pressing issues that no one is talking about.

I think we can prioritize things and these aren’t necessarily the big issues that are going to have the biggest impact on Taiwan. The problem in Taiwan now is with the way that referendums are set up as it is during election off years, it means there will be an election every year and that’s too many elections.

We don’t need a midterm to the midterm, as it creates more bureaucratic hoops for people, and most importantly, politicians can’t write and pass policy if they are always campaigning. What this does is prevent Taiwan’s democracy from really flourishing. What worries me is that when there are so many pressing issues in Taiwan, the rate that it’ll be addressed will just keep being lower because so much of Taiwan’s political time is spent on referendums and recalls.

This interview was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.



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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.