TAIPEI - Taiwan’s Central Election Commission formally announced this week that a record nine referendums will be held in conjunction with next month’s nationwide local elections, one of which is on whether to maintain a ban imposed on food products from five Japanese prefectures after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
Japan’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan, Mikio Numata, last week expressed disappointment over the vote scheduled for Nov. 24, saying that the issue has become a political tool of the party that initiated it, referring to the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT).
As it is unusual for Japan’s diplomatic mission to comment on Taiwanese affairs, Numata’s press release suggests that Tokyo is becoming impatient over the continuation of the ban long after it has been lifted elsewhere.
China is the only other country still restricting comprehensive imports from Fukushima and nearby Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi and Chiba prefectures.
The matter could also have been resolved earlier in Taiwan had politics not gotten in the way.
Former President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT proposed relaxing the restrictions before he stepped down from his second four-year term in 2016, but decided against it when the Democratic Progressive Party, then in opposition, rejected the plan.
Positions reversed in May 2016 when the DPP took over the presidency and proposed easing the ban, only to back away when the KMT questioned the new government’s ability to ensure the safety of the imported products.
If the referendum succeeds and the ban is sustained, the DPP will find itself in a very awkward position as ties with Japan have grown increasingly important.
Some say the DPP has no one to blame but itself given its earlier opposition to Ma’s proposal to lift the ban.
At the moment, however, the problem rests with current Taiwanese law, which makes referendums easy to organize and legally binding if they pass.
While some celebrate referendums as the purest form of democracy, others criticize them as being vulnerable to political manipulation. They can also put governments in a difficult spot with respect to stated policy, while often delivering mixed results when they succeed.
Such reservations were expressed at a recent international forum in Taipei by F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa and a co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela.
He said the task of a leader is “not to hear what the people want and then give it to them,” but rather to formulate concise goals and “convince” voters that it is in their best interests to support them.
Such a large number of referendums forces many to examine the basic belief about democracy as a form of government, said Denny Roy, senior fellow of the East-West Center in Hawaii.
“Specifically, do we believe in the wisdom and basic goodness of the majority of the people and trust them to do what is best for the country?” he asked. “Or are we afraid that the mass public is an uneducated and short-sighted mob, and is easily persuaded to support a policy that is stupid or dangerous?”
November will actually see an increase in the likelihood that the DPP government will have to deal with uncertainty, as more direct polls than ever before will be held and the voting age will be lowered from 20 to 18.
The referendum to uphold the ban on Japanese food is also not the only one likely to cause embarrassment.
Five out of the nine referendums involve same-sex marriage, with three initiated by opponents and two by supporters, making contradictory “yes” votes entirely possible.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Taiwan’s highest court, the Council of Grand Justices, ruled 18 months ago that the government must, within two years, amend the Civil Code or enact a special law legalizing gay marriage.
Many are curious about what the DPP government will do if all five are successful.
Another referendum that will only embarrass the government if it succeeds requires Taiwan’s sports teams to participate in future international events, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, under the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” as is currently the practice.
Whatever the outcome, those who organize such events will almost certainly follow the lead of the International Olympic Committee, which resolved in May that it would stand by a 1981 agreement that Taiwanese athletes must compete as “Chinese Taipei.”
Indeed, embarrassment is just one negative of the upcoming referendums. More worrying is their impact.
Simply allowing the referendum on the name of Taiwan’s sports teams annoyed China to such an extent that it pressured the East Asian Olympics Committee to revoke Taichung’s rights to host the 2019 East Asian Youth Games.
Beijing has said that if the referendum is successful, it will not sit idly by and that it “will definitely respond,” without elaborating.
And having already expressed irritation that a referendum will be held on the Japanese food ban, Tokyo will certainly be unhappy if it succeeds, which it very well could.
Despite scientific evidence that no risk exists, Taiwanese voters have been very reluctant to reverse course on such policies, as was the case with restrictions on U.S. beef, which for many years soured relations with Washington.
With fears of radiation poisoning groundless, Taiwan’s representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh, has been blunt in his criticism of the November referendum. He said the initiative is clearly a KMT scheme aimed at undermining bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan at a time when the two are seeking closer ties as a way of protecting themselves from an increasingly belligerent China.