The fact that these two referendums failed sends a message to the world that the Taiwanese do not care about Taiwan's admission to the UN. But it's not that simple, we need understand the requirements for a referendum to pass in Taiwan. There has been growing support amongst the people of Taiwan to have representation at the UN. Recent polls indicate that over 80% of the public think that Taiwan should have representation at the UN. Question is, under what name?
Several other factors contributed to the failure of the referendums, including calls by the KMT to boycott the DPP's referendum, and a number of KMT legislators even called for a boycott of BOTH referendums. Click here to read about the KMT's boycott of the referendums.
The two referendums were printed on forms separate from the presidential ballots. After picking up the presidential ballot at the first station, a voter would have to then request the two referendum ballot forms at the next station. At some polling stations there were cases of voters being subtly discouraged from picking up the referendum forms, or referendum forms were placed in an awkward position, inconveniencing voters wishing to pick them up.
The KMT's call to boycott the referendums may have also had an influence on voter's behaviors and attitudes towards the referendums. What subtle implications does this suggest about those who chose to pick up referendum ballots and those who didn't?
Thanks to Jerome Keating for writing this article (in today's Taipei Times) which explains the standards for referendums in Taiwan to be passed:
UN referendums trip on threshold
By Jerome Keating
Thursday, Mar 27, 2008, Page 8
In any other country, if a referendum were held and 94 percent of those who voted approved it, it would be considered a great success. That is not the case in Taiwan, however, which has unusually high requirements for success.
For the results of a referendum to be valid, 50 percent of all eligible voters must pick up and cast a ballot in a referendum, and 50 percent of those who cast a ballot must approve it.
Herein lies the problem. The first big hurdle for the UN referendums, which were held in conjunction with the presidential election, was to garner 50 percent of all eligible voters -- not 50 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the election.
That meant that since not all eligible voters turned out for the election, the referendum was already in danger of not passing.
Referendums have various requirements. They may or may not have a prerequisite that voter turnout be a certain percentage of the electorate. The Danish model requires 40 percent of the electorate. In some cases, a referendum can pass simply if the majority of those who vote approve it and there have been cases where a referendum has passed with as little as 8 percent of the electorate voting.
The Canadian government does not accept referendums as automatically binding; Quebec's referendum to secede from Canada in 1995 required a simple "50 percent plus one" majority. It barely missed the mark and had many worried.
Taiwan has had six referendums since it began directly electing its president and not one of these has passed. They have all failed, not because the majority of those voting did not approve them, but because an insufficient number of those eligible to vote picked up ballots. This is what happened to the two referendums on applying for UN membership.
In the referendum proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party, 6,201,677 people cast ballots and 5,529,230 approved the referendum. Another 352,359 people turned it down and 320,088 cast invalid ballots. The approval rate was 94.01 percent. Yet while more than 5.5 million people approved it, the referendum needed more than 8 million voters for the results to be valid.
A similar defeat was dealt to the UN referendum proposed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Its approval rate was 87.27 percent.
The purpose of referendums is to express the public's opinion, but because of the requirements, the results may be misinterpreted. There may be many reasons why eligible voters did not pick up ballots. Referendums may be used to mobilize voters towards a party's agenda.
If one party proposes a referendum, the opposition can counter it by encouraging voters not to pick up a ballot. In this way, party voters will not go on record as voting against a given proposition, but they will nevertheless have defeated the referendum simply by denying it sufficient voters.
In recent polls, more than 80 percent of the public said the nation should have representation at the UN, yet most eligible voters did not pick up ballots in the UN referendums.
Laws governing referendums must be reformed to ensure that referendums can be employed to gauge public opinion.
Until that happens, many -- including foreign media -- can easily misinterpret the results of the UN referendums and other plebiscites in Taiwan.
Jerome Keating is a Taiwan-based writer.
Here's another article from Monday's Taipei Times that discusses what the failed referendums mean:
Post-Election 2008: Academics assess meaning of failed UN referendums
By Jenny W. Hsu and Shih Hsiu-chuan
Monday, Mar 24, 2008, Page 3
The failed passage of both UN referendums in Saturday's election may have sent a message to the world that Taiwanese do not care about the country's admission to the UN, a group of foreign and local academics said yesterday during a roundtable in Taipei.
Calling the failed referendum a "miserable story," Gunter Shubert, from University of Tuebingen's Institute of Chinese and Korean Studies, said that not only was the collective will of Taiwanese falsely represented, but the referendum, as a political instrument, was "misused and degraded" in this election, as both camps used it to boost the interests of the party rather than to mirror what the people wanted.
Both referendums were also poorly formulated, he said.
The referendums proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) on Taiwan's UN bid were held in tandem with the presidential election on Saturday.
The DPP called on voters to agree on Taiwan applying for a full UN membership under the name "Taiwan," while the KMT version asked for support for Taiwan to re-enter the body as the "Republic of China," or under any other "practical" titles.
The referendums failed as the 35 percent turnout fell short of the required threshold of more than 50 percent of eligible voters, even though the DPP proposal received a 94 percent "yes" vote and the KMT proposal was approved by 87 percent.
Aside from specialists and those who followed the matter closely, most people will likely equate the low turnout with lack of desire for membership in the global body, Shubert said.
If Taiwan continues to misuse referendums, he said, people will eventually start to lose faith in the tool.
Christopher Hughes, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said the Beijing government could spin the results and argue that the referendum defeat showed that most Taiwanese do not wish to be independent from China.
Shortly after the result was announced on Saturday night, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office released a statement saying the failed referendum meant that "the issue of independence has not won the heart of the Taiwanese people."
Asked if he believes Taiwan can recover from the setback, Hughes said: "The situation cannot be worse than it is right now," adding that Taiwan should develop better public relations strategies to win more support.
Lin Cheng-yi (林正義) of Academia Sinica lamented the fact that the issue of Taiwan's entry in the UN has become politicized, which the splintered results made evident.
"If it had been the UN that conducted the referendum on Taiwan's membership, the result would have been overwhelmingly different," he said.
At a separate forum hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy yesterday, political observers said newly elected president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) needs to think hard about how he will explain the failure of the referendums to the rest of the world.
Lee Yeau-tarn (李酉潭), an associate professor at National Chengchi University's Sun Yat-sen Graduate Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, said "the failure of the two referendums was regrettable."
"What is even more regrettable is that the result was interpreted in such a way that would make it appear that the referendums were voted down, which is not the case," Lee said.
Highlighting the problem of the threshold, Lee said, is the fact that "the legislature would have been an illegitimate institution if the 50 percent turnout was an appropriate threshold."
"A 35 percent turnout isn't that bad," Lee said, adding that in 2005, the turnout at the National Assembly on approving a constitutional reform package that determined a legislative reform proposal was 23 percent.