Archive for the ‘referendum’ Category

the politics of the marriage equality vote

May 21, 2019

Last Friday, Taiwan passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Constitutional Interpretation No. 748, which is pointedly not named the Marriage Equality Act. This is not a post about how wonderful it is for Taiwan to pass such landmark legislation or how it is the first country in Asia to do so. (For the record, I think it is pretty great.) T his post is about the politics behind that momentous act.

This issue has turned into something of a political nightmare for President Tsai and the DPP. Courtney Donovan Smith has done a fantastic job of following all the twists and turns over the past four years, tracing how it all went politically wrong for the DPP. I highly recommend reading that piece before continuing this one, because I’m going to assume all that as background knowledge. I only have two points to add to Donovan’s excellent account. People don’t pay enough attention to President Tsai’s judicial appointments, and it isn’t commonly appreciated just how much the revisions to the Referendum Act changed the entire process and outlook for marriage equality.

Marriage equality would not have gotten to the front of Taiwan’s political agenda if the Council of Grand Justices hadn’t put it there. Yes, there were demonstrations and activists, but they weren’t anywhere near powerful enough to force their way onto the agenda. There wasn’t a consensus in public opinion, and it wasn’t close to getting on the party platform of either of the two major parties. Without the court, this would have lingered on the sidelines, waiting behind other stalled causes such as judicial reform, moving the Taipei city airport, and absentee voting. Why did the court put this case on the agenda? It did so because a majority of the justices took a progressive view of this question. And that happened because President Tsai appointed progressives to the Council of Grand Justices. There are fifteen justices. The President and Vice President of the Judicial Yuan serve four year terms, and the other thirteen serve eight year terms. Due to disputes dating back to the late Chen presidency (ie: the legislature refused to confirm anyone Chen nominated), the calendar for filling vacancies got screwed up. A political settlement allowed Tsai to fill seven vacancies (including the President and VP of the Judicial Yuan) after she took office, so there are four justices nominated by Ma in 2011, four more nominated by Ma in 2015, and seven nominated by Tsai in 2016. All seven of Tsai’s nominees went on record as being in favor of marriage equality. None of Ma’s eight nominees publicly expressed support for marriage equality. The 2011 nominees weren’t asked about the issue. The 2015 nominees were asked to raise their hands if they supported marriage equality, and none of them did. Granted, at least one of Ma’s nominees actually did vote for marriage equality, and only two issued formal dissenting opinions. However, there is a clear difference between the types of people Tsai and Ma nominated. If Tsai had appointed the types of people Ma did, it is highly unlikely that the court would have ruled in favor of marriage equality. In short, Tsai was responsible for getting marriage equality on Taiwan’s political agenda. The activists seem to feel she has betrayed them by not vocally leading the fight, but without her contributions, there wouldn’t even be much of a public fight. No Tsai, no marriage equality.

The second point is that revising the Referendum Act changed everything. The act was revised in December 2017 to lower the thresholds for both proposal and passage of referendums. Under the old law, a referendum needed 50% turnout and more yes than no votes to pass. Since opponents simply declined to vote, the yes side needed to supply 50% of the total electorate. Six referendums had been held since 2004, none of which had come very close to passing. Under the new law, the yes side simply needs to exceed 25% of the electorate, and yes votes must outnumber no votes. When combined with a general election, this effectively removed turnout as a consideration. As long as the yes side got more votes than the no side, the referendum would almost surely pass. In 2018, 31 referendums were introduced, 10 made it onto the ballot, and seven passed. Five of them dealt with marriage equality.

Why was the Referendum Law revised? Two groups were most vocal in support. On the one hand, Taiwan independence fundamentalists have been pushing referendums for years. They would have us believe that referendums (“direct democracy”!!)  are a fundamental democratic right, and any system that doesn’t allow for referendums is not actually a democracy. (As a political scientist, let me comment on that: Horsefeathers! Malarkey! Bovine Feces!) Of course, they actually want referendums to become institutionalized because they hope to one day hold a referendum on Taiwan independence. On the other hand, the growing group of young and alienated voters sees referendums as a way to bypass the established (read: corrupt) parties and go directly to the people. Ko Wen-je’s fascination with i-voting neatly reflects this sentiment (even though it has been a disaster every time he has tried to use i-voting to make a public policy decision). The two groups intersect perfectly in the person of Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄。The independence fundamentalists, who are disproportionately socially conservative old men, probably weren’t too distressed by how referendums affected marriage equality. However, the young progressives should be. The New Power Party 時代力量 was the strongest voice in the legislature demanding the Referendum Act be changed. Ironically, its first important substantive impact has been to harm marriage equality, one of the NPP’s core goals. Somehow, the NPP leaders seem unable to connect these two points.

The court made its decision in May 2017 and set a two year deadline. Politicians rarely do anything controversial without a deadline, so it should surprise no one that the legislature hadn’t taken action by the beginning of 2018. Before the Referendum Act was revised, marriage equality activists could argue that public opinion was mostly on their side. They had some limited polling, which if you looked at it from just the right angle suggested that more people supported them than opposed them. They also convinced quite a few legislators to sign pledges supporting marriage equality. With the weight of the court opinion behind them, they had a strong case for hoping to get full marriage equality. As legislators went back home and talked to their constituents, we started getting rumblings of popular dissatisfaction. However, there was no authoritative way to quantify this public sentiment. Any circumstantial evidence could be countered by other circumstantial evidence. For example, NPP chair K.C. Huang 黃國昌 was subjected to a recall election in December 2017, and the activists who stood outside collecting signatures were almost all from social conservative groups opposing marriage equality. However, the recall vote failed, and it was easy to dismiss it as simply a KMT-led partisan effort (as I myself did) rather than as a sign of an enormous groundswell against gay marriage.

Once the Referendum Act passed, the anti-marriage groups started organizing almost immediately to put their measures on the ballot. And once it became clear that the public was going to have an opportunity to weigh in, the politicians had a perfect excuse to stall. Why should the politicians decide whether to amend the Civil Code or pass a special law before the voters had a chance to express their opinions? Once the Referendum Act passed, there was zero chance of the legislature doing anything on marriage equality before the November 24, 2018 election.

Stalling wasn’t the most important consequence. The most important consequence was that referendums provided a vehicle for activists to organize, focus, and interpret public opinion. Without a referendum, attitudes about marriage equality were vague. It wasn’t clear how broad or intense anti-marriage sentiment was. It wasn’t even clear if people cared enough about the issue to bother voting on it. There also wasn’t a strong organization of people to voice anti-marriage opinions or to decide exactly the form that those opinions should take. The referendum encouraged the religious organizations to join together under an umbrella group, to put together rosters of volunteers, to hold events, and to galvanize their own attitudes through their activism.

Once the referendum was held, society discovered that public opinion was much more strongly against marriage equality than even the anti-marriage activists expected. There simply is no way to sugarcoat losing by a two-to-one margin. You could tell that the anti-marriage side was stunned by their own success because they almost immediately tried to disown their own referendum. They had proposed a convoluted question in which they proposed “protecting” gay couples’ “rights” through some means other than amending the Civil Code. This measure passed 6.40 million to 4.07 million. (The marriage equality side asked a much clearer but logically equivalent question, and that one failed 3.38 million to 6.94 million.) The anti-marriage side had not dared to ask whether gay marriage should simply not be allowed. After the referendum results were tallied, they openly announced opposition to any legalization of gay marriage. The referendum emboldened them to take a much more radical stance than they had originally dared. Moreover, much of society bought into this new interpretation. Many people did not see the vote as an expression of support for a special law legalizing gay marriage (as it was literally written), but as an expression of opposition to any form of gay marriage.

The referendum erased any possibility of full marriage equality through a revision of the Civil Code. The only path that was politically palatable would be a special law, and even that was going to be extremely hard for the legislature. It took a heroic effort by the Tsai government, especially from Premier Su, to rescue the situation.

 

 

We now fast-forward to last week. With the May 24 deadline approaching, the legislature had to make its decision. In discussing the events of last week, I will draw heavily on two excellent accounts of what went on behind the scenes, one from Mirror Media (鏡週刊) and one from the Central News Agency (中央社). If you read Chinese, I highly recommend you read their full accounts.

The DPP had decided long ago to try to pass the cabinet bill without subjecting its members to extra votes. At the first reading on March 5, the DPP voted to bypass committee hearings and send the bill directly to the floor for the second reading. That vote passed 59-24, with 5 abstentions. All 59 yes votes came from the DPP and NPP; all 24 of the no votes came from the KMT and PFP. The five abstentions were all DPP members. The DPP did not want to force its members to go through public committee hearings in which the KMT would try to get them to openly take unpopular positions. The KMT, in contrast, was incensed that it was denied this fun. In addition to the cabinet’s bill, there were a few other bills proposed. Most of these were from marriage equality opponents, such as KMT legislator Lai Shi-pao’s 賴士葆 bill, which was tellingly titled, The Enforcement Act for Referendum #12 公投第十二案施行法草案. The DPP legislative caucus used its procedural powers to adopt a first-winner voting rule. Multiple versions of each clause would be placed on the agenda. The first one to be passed would be adopted with no need for a vote on any of the other versions. Moreover, the first version to be voted on would be the cabinet’s bill, so if the cabinet’s version passed, legislators would not have to vote on any of the other versions. The KMT screamed about these procedures, but there is nothing particularly abnormal about them. I wrote a chapter of my PhD dissertation on how majority parties use their procedural tools to provide political cover for their members to help those members make politically difficult decisions.

Even with these procedures in place, it was by no means certain that the cabinet’s bill would pass. In the days before the vote, the DPP party caucus polled its members and found it only had 31 solid votes. There are 113 legislators, and even if some of them don’t show up, 31 is not enough. There was even an attempt to organize legislators from central Taiwan to collectively boycott the votes. They knew they could probably count on the five votes from the NPP, and they thought they would have the support of one KMT legislator, Jason Hsu 許毓仁。With 39 other KMT, PFP, and independent legislators, the overwhelming majority of whom they expected to vote against them, they could not afford many absences, much less outright defections. There was a very real possibility that the cabinet’s bill would not pass. In that case, one of the other versions might have passed, or, worst of all, nothing might have passed.

Let’s pause to think about the political implications of such a failure. The Council of Grand Justices had set out a political demand, and there was a possibility that the legislature would challenge that demand. Among the alternate versions of the bill, there were some that did not include the term “marriage” and some that had larger legal differences between the version of marriage for straight couples as written in the Civil Code and the version for same-sex couples as written in this special law. The justices had left it up to the legislature to determine the exact form of the law, but they explicitly demanded that whatever framework was adopted would have to achieve “the equal protection of the freedom of marriage.” If everything had unraveled and the legislature had passed an extremely restrictive bill, it might have led to a constitutional confrontation with the court. It is entirely possible that the court would have lost this struggle. On the one hand, the referendum demonstrated that public opinion is not as favorable to marriage equality as most people had previously believed. In the Wikipedia entry on this case, one justice’s public statement in favor of marriage equality is precisely that people are more accepting now of homosexuality than they used to be. He might have to rethink that statement. On the other hand, when courts fight with elected officials, the courts usually lose. Courts have no power outside their courtroom. In one famous but probably apocryphal quote, U.S. President Andrew Jackson said, [Supreme Court Chief Justice] “Mr. Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Although it probably would not have come to such a crisis, there is a sense in which the DPP was fighting a battle to ensure the continuing smooth operation of the rule of law.

More immediately, the DPP was fighting a battle to preserve its authority. When a leader sets out to do something, failure exposes the leader as toothless. If the Tsai government had staked its reputation on passing the bill and failed to do so, we would have seen a sheaf of declarations that Tsai was now officially a lame duck, that her party was in rebellion, that she was no longer the leader of her party, that her presidency was effectively over, and that the country would stumble along leaderless for the next year until a new president was inaugurated.

Finally, in the event that no bill had passed, we would have been plunged into administrative uncertainty. Local governments would have been left to figure out on their own how to (or even whether to) register same-sex marriages under their existing rules. The cries of “government incompetence” would have been deafening.

Politically speaking, one of the primary arguments for the DPP members to stick together was simply that failure to do so would have been worse. The party was not going to dodge the political responsibility for supporting marriage equality either way.

In the event, the DPP did not fail. Two things were critical: it slightly altered the language in the bill, and it launched a massive lobbying campaign at its legislators.

In discussions with its caucus members, it found that the hardest bit to swallow was the phrase “same-sex marriage” 同性婚姻 in Clause 2. Members proposed revisions removing that phrase and instead using wording such as “register in accordance with the directions set out in Constitutional Interpretation No. 748” and “register as same-sex spouses in accordance with the rules set out herein.”  However, Premier Su insisted on including the word “marriage” in the final wording. The compromise version was to remove the phrase “same-sex marriage” from Clause 2 but to instead stipulate that two people of the same sex could form a “permanent union” and to add in Clause 4 that couples should “register their marriage” at the local household registration office. Substantively, I don’t think there is any difference between the original wording and the final version. However, the compromise version was evidently politically more palatable.

The Tsai administration then launched a massive lobbying effort. Every legislator was targeted by multiple people from the party caucus, the presidential office, the cabinet, their geographic region, and their faction leaders. Some of the people involved included premier Su and vice premier Chen Chi-mai, presidential office secretary general Chen Chu and deputy secretary general Liu Chien-hsi 劉建析, caucus leader Ke Chien-ming, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan, and a few cabinet ministers. Basically, almost all the DPP’s heavy hitters were enlisted. (The young progressives detest Ke Chien-ming, who they think is conservative and corrupt. Perhaps, but he gets things done, including this progressive reform.) The lobbyists made a variety of appeals, ranging from cold political calculations to emotional appeals about experiences fighting the authoritarian regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Premier Su was particularly effective; one of his entreaties reportedly left a group of legislators in tears.

William Lai is glaringly absent from this narrative. Lai did post a picture of himself with a rainbow background on social media, but he doesn’t seem to have lifted a finger to pass this bill, either when he was premier or in the last week.

The DPP wasn’t sure that its efforts would pay off until Friday morning, when it was finally confident that it had secured the votes of most of its members. The caucus decided not to formally impose party discipline on the votes, but rather to take collectively responsibility without such coercion. Somehow this worked. The group of legislators from central Taiwan that had been threatening a collective walkout instead decided to collectively support the cabinet bill. Other legislators that had been wavering under pressure from religious groups, such as Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟 and Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, also stepped back in line. In the end, the DPP was able to get nearly 60 votes on every clause, more than enough to ensure passage. It ended up looking like an easy win, but a lot of DPP legislators swallowed some incredibly difficult votes.

 

 

So much for the media narrative. Let’s look at the voting record. For readers familiar with the US Congress, a short background note on how voting works is useful. In the US Congress (and many other legislatures), a bill is put before the floor, amendments are processed, and then a final passage vote is taken to pass or reject the entire bill. If no amendments are offered, only one final passage vote is required to pass the entire bill. In Taiwan, there are no final passage votes. Instead, in the second reading, the bill is processed clause by clause. Each clause is voted for and passed independently. There is a third reading in which the entire bill is reviewed again, but this is not supposed to be a substantive vote. The third reading is only to catch errors or contradictions in the legal wording, and it is almost always a mere formality.

Friday’s bill had 27 clauses, so legislators had to pass 28 items: the title of the bill and 27 individual clauses. In addition, the DPP allowed votes on two other items, a vote to not consider Lin Tai-hua’s 林岱樺 (more conservative) version of Clause 8 and a vote on the NPP’s (more progressive) version of Clause 27. In each of the 30 votes, a yes vote represented a vote for the more progressive option. The Legislative Yuan hasn’t published the official record yet, so I got the votes by watching the video of the session published on the legislature’s IVOD system. There are two big video boards on which the votes are recorded, and at the end of each vote, the screen is supposed to show both of them, one after the other. Unfortunately, the camera people weren’t always paying attention, and sometimes they never bothered switching back to the second screen. I was able to get most of the votes, but in two cases my vote tally came up one yes vote short from the official tally. In both cases, it looks to me like the most obvious person to have voted yes was Jason Hsu 許毓仁, who seemed to habitually wait until the very last moment to cast his vote. The bigger problem was Clause 18, since the camera never got around to showing the second screen at all. As a result, I will only discuss 29 roll call votes. Clause 18 was a fairly routine vote; most of the later clauses had the same people voting all the same ways. I don’t think Clause 18 would have changed any of the conclusions reached in the following discussion.

The first five votes were the most important. The first vote, over the title of the bill, was the first test of how legislators would vote. It passed 68-27. Clause 1 passed 68-25. Clause 2 was the one that the DPP changed the wording of to avoid the scary “same-sex marriage” wording. It passed 75-22. Clause 3 passed 71-27. Clause 4, which included the word “marriage” was the most difficult vote for many legislators. It passed 66-27. The legislature needed about four hours to get through these first five votes. There was an extensive general discussion before the voting started, and several legislators spoke before the voting on the individual clauses. After Clause 4 passed, the legislature took a short recess. When the session resumed, deputy speaker Tsai took over the meeting, and it went through the remaining votes in less than two hours. For most of them, there was no debate at all; the staff member read the text, and the legislature voted. Almost all of Clauses 5 through 27 passed by either a 66-27 or a 67-26 vote. There was a short recess before Clause 27 so that speaker Su could preside over the passage of the bill.

The five New Power Party legislators all voted yes 29 times. They were the only legislators to do so.

The three PFP legislators voted no the first 27 times and didn’t bother to vote on the last two items.

The three independent legislators were absent.

The 68 DPP legislators had a few different patterns. The speaker and deputy speaker usually don’t participate in roll call votes; Su did not vote, but Tsai did vote (yes) on the first five items. 48 DPP legislators voted the party line all 29 times, including all 17 of the party list legislators (other than Speaker Su).  Eleven DPP legislators voted the party line 28 times but missed one vote. A few of these look like bathroom breaks. For example, Chen Ou-po 陳歐珀 missed the vote on Clause 14, Wu Chi-ming 吳琪銘 missed Clause 20, and Lin Chun-hsien 林俊憲 missed Clause 17. These random missing votes don’t seem very consequential. However, many of the single missing yes votes were on the controversial Clause 4. Liu Chao-hao 劉櫂豪, Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟, Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, Yeh Yi-chin 葉宜津, Ho Hsin-chun 何欣純, and Chen Ying 陳瑩 all voted the DPP party line 28 times, but they were absent on Clause 4. Tsai Shi-ying 蔡適應 was absent four times, on Clauses 3, 4, 14, and 20; he voted with the party the other 25 times. I think these seven legislators were trying to both support the party line and also dodge a controversial vote. By the time they took the vote, they were certainly aware that their vote would not be decisive. Still, they did skip the single most important vote.

Five DPP legislators broke ranks and refused to show up at all. Huang Kuo-shu 黃國書, Chiang Yung-chang 江永昌, Hsu Chih-chieh 許智傑, Hung Tsung-yi 洪宗熠, and Yang Yao 楊曜 missed all the votes. Of these, Hung and Yang represent rural swing districts. If the party is going to forgive anyone for breaking discipline, they would be at the top of the list. Huang and Hsu, in green-leaning urban districts, have far weaker excuses. Finally, there is Lin Tai-hua 林岱樺, from a deep green district in Kaohsiung. Lin is perhaps the most vocal opponent of marriage equality within the DPP caucus, and she even offered her own (far more conservative) draft of the bill. Unlike the other opponents, Lin showed up and voted. She voted yes 18 times and no 11 times; she was the only legislator to vote both yes and no. I’m not sure what message she wanted to communicate with that action.

The 34 KMT legislators also had a few different patterns. 18 voted no all 29 times, and five others voted no at least 26 times but missed a few votes. Ma Wen-chun 馬文君 voted no four of the first five items (missing Clause 1) and then stopped voting altogether. Lin Li-chan 林麗蟬 and Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 missed all 29 votes. These 26 KMT legislators collectively cast zero votes in favor of marriage equality.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have Jason Hsu casting 24 yes votes, missing two, and voting to abstain three times. Recall, I think those two absent votes were probably actually yes votes. His three abstentions were on Clauses 7, 20, and 26, which seems pretty random to me. He was the only legislator to vote with the NPP on the NPP version of Clause 27.

This leaves seven KMT members who voted yes between one and three times. Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安, Ke Chih-en 柯志恩, Lee Yen-hsiu 李彥秀, Lin Yi-hua 林奕華, and Chen Yi-min 陳宜民  all skipped the first two votes, voted yes on Clauses 2 through 4, and then took the rest of the day off. Hsu Shu-hua 許淑華 voted yes on Clauses 2 and 4, and Lin Wei-chou voted yes on Clause 2. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I should think about their action. On the one hand, they voted yes on the three most critical clauses. On the other hand, they skipped out afterwards, and pointedly did not vote for the rest of the bill. If you are a supporter of marriage equality, wouldn’t you want to be on record as supporting the entire bill? On the third hand, this was a DPP bill. The KMT was entirely cut out of the process. Once they went on record as supporting marriage equality, they also wanted to express displeasure with the DPP’s actions. Expressing both substance and partisanship is entirely reasonable. On the fourth hand, the insider narratives indicated that these seven KMT legislators’ intentions were entirely unknown to the DPP caucus leaders. Because the DPP caucus leaders were expecting support from only Jason Hsu, they felt pressure to alter the language of the bill. They didn’t make substantively serious alterations, but they considered doing so. If the KMT legislators had openly expressed support for the original language, they might have ensured that the strongest version possible passed. On the fifth hand, maybe they, like those wavering DPP legislators, were only willing to vote for the altered language. On the sixth hand, their open support might be the bulwark that prevents other KMT politicians from trying to overturn the bill in the future. On the seventh hand, perhaps if the DPP hadn’t been able to cobble together enough votes, they would have let the bill go up in flames. They pointedly sat out the first two votes, which were the proof of strength. On the eighth hand, who the hell has eight hands?

Aside: I do think this vote was extremely savvy for Wayne Chiang. I assume that, as Taiwan gets used to the idea of same-sex marriage, the yes vote will look better and better. Unlike many other legislators who have difficult elections this year, Chiang can afford to think a few years down the road. He will probably be the KMT’s Taipei mayoral candidate in 2022, and that will put him on the short list for the presidency somewhere between 2028 and 2048. He will be able to point back to this vote as an example of foresight, progressive values, and the courage to take an unpopular position.

Aside continued: In contrast, Johnny Chiang 江啟臣, one of the KMT legislators who voted no all 29 times, tried to claim that the KMT wasn’t really against marriage equality but were simply expressing anger with the DPP’s procedural tactics. Johnny Chiang is sometimes touted as a future KMT leader, but this statement was pathetic. There are some days in which you can complain about procedures, but this wasn’t one of them. The international media didn’t turn its eyes to Taiwan because they were interested in the DPP’s committee referral strategy. There are some times when a milestone decision is before you and you have to take a stand. This was one of those times. His grandchildren won’t care about procedures. They will only care if he was on the right side of history, whichever side that turns out to be.

Overall, the bill was the DPP’s bill, and the DPP provided the votes to pass it. DPP legislators had 1972 votes to cast, and they voted the party line 1749 times (88.7%). From a different perspective, there were 1875 total yes votes cast. The DPP provided 1688 of those yes votes (90.0%), the NPP provided 145 (8.6%), and the KMT only provided 42 (2.5%). In contrast, the KMT provided 662 (81.3%) of the total 814 no votes. While some media reports played up the DPP defections and the KMT yes votes to give the impression that both sides acted similarly, that simply isn’t correct. A small number of KMT legislators gave a small amount of support, and a small number of DPP legislators withheld their support. However, the main pattern was that the DPP overwhelmingly supported marriage equality, and the KMT mostly opposed it.

Energy policy and referenda

December 1, 2018

I feel the need to rant about referenda today.

 

So what the hell is Taiwan’s energy policy supposed to be now?

 

Last Saturday, voters passed the referendum #16, commonly labeled as “go nuclear to go green” (my clumsy translation), which deleted a clause in one of the laws setting the phase-out date for nuclear power. (At least I think that’s what it did. I’m actually not sure, which, eventually, is the point.) They also voted overwhelmingly against the Shen-ao coal-fired power plant project (which the government had already cancelled). And Taichung voters elected KMT candidate Lu Hsiu-yen in a landslide, partially because she campaigned on the poor air quality caused by the huge coal power plant. She further promised to stop sending electricity generated in Taichung to northern Taiwan.

But while those are the most recent results, we also have to think about previous lessons from public opinion. Five years ago, the government wanted to have a referendum on whether to open the fourth nuclear power plant, but it was so unpopular that KMT legislators weren’t even willing to vote to propose the referendum. Also, after the KMT lost the 2016 presidential election, Eric Chu singled out increases in electricity (and propane gas) prices as one of the major reasons that the public rebelled against the Ma government. Finally, let’s remember how much outrage there was last summer when an accident at one power plant caused one day of blackouts over much of the island.

To summarize, the voters don’t want clearly coal. They definitely don’t want nuclear, or maybe they do. They don’t want any power plants in their neighborhood, and they definitely don’t want electricity generated in their neighborhood to be sent elsewhere. They want low prices, and they absolutely demand a stable supply of electricity.

It should be easy to satisfy all those demands simultaneously. I’m glad we used referenda to clear up this entire matter.

 

I have three big objections to this attempt to use referenda to decide energy policy. First, voters are not forced to consider trade-offs. None of the proposals suggested that cutting coal power might be possible if an increase in electricity prices spurred less electricity consumption. Voters in central Taiwan were not asked if they supported refusing to send electricity generated in central Taiwan northward even if it resulted in companies in the Hsinchu Science Party (read: Taiwan Semiconductors) being forced to cut production. Trade-offs are exactly what governments do. The Tsai government restarted nuclear reactors that had previously been offline over the protesting screams of its anti-nuclear wing because it was much more afraid of blackouts. Taiwan could cut pollution by using higher prices to suppress demand, but that would be unpopular. It could also cut pollution by retrofitting some of its older coal plants, but that is extremely expensive and it would take a few years. None of the options are ideal. You can’t have everything you want; you have to make trade-offs. Referenda almost never present the question this way.

Second, energy policy takes years to implement. Five years ago, the Ma government bowed to public pressure and shuttered the fourth nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, this left Taiwan’s energy reserves precariously low. The Tsai government has invested heavily in wind power, which is starting to come online now, and it is planning a natural gas facility in northern Taiwan. However, in the meantime, the choice was essentially getting more electricity out of the existing coal plants or the existing nuclear plants. In fact, the government had to do both. It’s a reasonable stopgap measure, given the long-term strategy. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s referendum law has a short-term orientation. Under the December 2017 revision, the thresholds for proposal and passage are ludicrously low. A successful referendum doesn’t necessarily reflect a deeply held consensus in society. It can just as easily reflect a short-term blip in public opinion. A few years ago, nuclear was extremely unpopular. Now, that has faded somewhat, so maybe this year coal is the villain. What if we do this next year and find that public opinion has shifted again? Are we supposed to fundamentally shift energy policy every two years just because 29.8% of eligible voters said yes to some unintelligible question on the ballot?

And that brings me to the third and most basic problem: information. Referenda place extremely high demands on voters to become educated, and there is very little evidence that voters are up to the task. I’ve been reading Democracy for Realists by Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, and they make this point forcefully. Voters simply do not have the time, capacity, or desire to become fully informed on any given question. We all have better things to do. At any rate, division of labor is a hallmark of modern society. Why should we think that society is better off if everyone neglects their other responsibilities (that is, the things that they are good at) and spends months learning about energy policy? That’s crazy. Instead, people find shortcuts. There are usually plenty of people who are happy to advise them how to vote, but that isn’t necessarily good advice. The people with the strongest incentive to give advice are the people who will directly benefit from the outcome. Not surprisingly, referenda tend to favor the wealthy. The promise of referenda is that voters can bypass the disgusting politicians and go directly to the people. Unfortunately, the people have to rely on an even more disgusting set of people (who are actually also politicians in a different guise) for advice.

Achen and Bartels cite a couple of stories vividly illustrate these problems. In one, many counties in Illinois adopted a requirement that any increase in taxes to fund fire departments had to be approved by referendum. In other counties, the local administrators and councils made this decision. Predictably, voters refused to pay higher taxes, and the quality of fire departments in the referendum counties declined noticeably. Training was neglected, equipment became outdated, staffing was thinner, and response times were longer. Wait, maybe that’s what voters wanted. Maybe they were willing to accept worse fire protection for lower taxes. It seems unlikely; most people also want better services, especially when those services involve life and death. However, they did not save money. They paid lower taxes, but they paid higher fire insurance rates. The county administrators understood this, but voters did not. Poorly informed voters made self-harming choices, and this problem, unlike national energy policy, was fairly easy to understand. Voters are ALWAYS underinformed.

But what if some voters could be fully informed? Would other voters defer to them? In Canada, the province of British Columbia tried to find out. There was a movement to reform the electoral system by putting in some form of proportional representation. The provincial government took a large group of citizens and basically gave them a college class for a few months. Various experts came in and taught this group all the pros and cons of the various proposals. Eventually, the group formed an overwhelming consensus for a specific proposal which was put on the ballot. The voters rejected it by a decisive margin. The voters apparently weren’t impressed by all the study that the select group had done. Average voters made their decisions based on their own limited knowledge rather than assuming they, like the people in the select group, would see things differently if they were more fully informed.

Remember at the beginning when I stated that I wasn’t exactly sure what referendum #16 did? Of course I don’t! I’m underinformed. I’ll bet you are too. I want experts who have spent their careers thinking about the details and tradeoffs involved to sit down with politicians who have spent their careers thinking about how to balance the aggregated demands of society and figure the damn thing out. If I try to set energy policy, I’m probably going to overlook something very basic and end up with expensive, dirty, and unreliable electricity. I might even end up burning my own house down.

Referenda are a terrible way to make public choices.

Election summary

November 30, 2018

I wrote a short recap of the election for Taiwan Insight.

I have a lot of work on my desk right now, and I probably won’t write too much more about the overall result. If I do write anything, it will probably be about the referenda. I’m not so interested in the outcomes of these ten votes as in the process. Theoretically, referenda do not necessarily create better policies or deeper democracy. Empirically, referenda tend to favor rich people over poor people. They do not sidestep politicians; they simply empower a different set of political elites. As such, I’m not crazy about referenda in the first place. Ideally, the chaos created by this year’s ten referenda would be an inspiration to abolish the Referendum Law, to forbid holding referenda on the same day as a general election, or, at the very least, to raise the thresholds for proposal and passage. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that this will happen. More likely, politicians will try to “solve” the problem by using “better” technology: someone will decide that digital voting is the way forward. I don’t have the time to go into it now, but this is a TERRIBLE idea. The current low-tech system is fantastic. It is transparent, accurate, fast (when not swamped by numerous referenda), trustworthy, highly resistant to vote rigging, and completely unhackable. When the CEC says that Ko Wen-je won the Taipei mayoral race by 3000 votes out of over 1.4 million cast, no one doubts this. No one doubts that the people who voted all had the right to vote, that they only voted once, that they each made a choice without coercion, and that their preferences were accurately counted and recorded. That is a fucking miracle. Putting a touchscreen voting machine in the middle of it might seem “modern,” but it is not more trustworthy, it might be less accurate (since some people will not know how to use the new machines), and it is almost certainly more prone to breakdowns. It is also much, much more fertile territory for conspiracy theorists as well as actual hackers.

Is this plan B?

January 5, 2014

So the government is apparently just going to go ahead with testing at the 4th nuclear power plant.  They even have plans to insert fuel rods.  Didn’t they promise to ask the voters before doing this?  Does this mean that they have abandoned the referendum idea?  Did I miss that press release?  I thought that the promise of a vote was one of the core premises of Premier Jiang Yi-huah’s cabinet.  I’m a bit confused.

 

[Edit: One day later, the Liberty Times is asking the same question.]

Disobedient KMT legislators?

September 24, 2013

Here’s an interesting bit of news.  KMT legislative party whip Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池 announced that the legislature will not take up the nuclear referendum this session.  Lin explained that the Ministry of Economics has not yet produced a safety report, and the legislature cannot be expected to act before that report comes out.

This is interesting to me because my working assumption is that the current KMT political struggle is all about the executive branch demanding that its party members in the legislature toe the party line and pass the executive’s legislative agenda.  According to all accounts, there are three big items on that agenda: the services trade agreement, the nuclear referendum, and the annual budget.  Lin has just told the executive that Santa isn’t giving them everything they want for Christmas this year.

This comes after Ma announced the KMT would rearrange the coordinating meetings between the party, executive, and legislature by replacing Speaker Wang with Party Whip Lin.  Apparently, before the first meeting in which the president, premier, vice-president, and party secretary-general would have told him what to do, Lin pre-empted them by publicly announcing what he would not do.

Ma’s inner circle may have thought that Wang was behind all the obstruction in the legislature and that things would move much more smoothly once his power was hollowed out.  However, if the underlying problem was that many KMT legislators don’t want to be associated with unpopular executive proposals, Ma may be in for a rude awakening.

KMT proposes referendum on nuclear power

February 27, 2013

The KMT has announced that it will support holding a referendum on whether to start operations at the 4th nuclear power plant (4NPP).

This is a stunning turn of events, at least to me.  They are venturing onto treacherous ground.  There are lots of ways this can go wrong for them, and only one way that it can turn out well.

Nuclear power divides along the traditional blue/green lines, though there have been defectors from both sides.  I recall one budget fight in the late 1990s in which the KMT demanded party discipline from everyone except for legislators from Taipei County, who were allowed to vote with their constituency.  Similarly, the DPP was not monolithically anti-nuclear either.  The polarizing moment came early in Chen’s presidency when he stopped construction on 4NPP.  Chen had won the presidency with 39%, and the DPP had roughly the same share of seats in the legislature.  The newly emerging blue camp had a clear majority, and nuclear power was the test case to see if the president or the legislature would dominate the government for the rest of the term.  Whatever deviance from party positions had previously existed was quickly overwhelmed by the partisan struggle for power.  Eventually, the KMT won out and the DPP was forced to resume construction on 4NPP.  If it wasn’t already clear, this episode indelibly branded the KMT and DPP as pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear parties.

The project has had a bumpy history, to put it mildly.  There have been numerous cost overruns, safety problems, construction delays, and various other snafus.  Of course, the site is near the Taipei metropolitan area, vulnerable to tsunamis, on an earthquake fault, and even sits atop a not-quite-dormant volcano.  The fact that Taiwan has three other (much older) nuclear power plants (with not entirely pristine safety records) has done little to qualm fears about whether 4NPP will be safe.  Fukushima sharpened all these concerns and forced Taiwanese to rethink whether nuclear power was a good idea.

During the 2012 presidential election, the KMT tried to take the nuclear issue off the table.  It promised to decommission the three existing plants on schedule.  4NPP would be opened, but not until it had been rigorously tested.  At the end of its scheduled life, Taiwan would be nuclear free.  Somehow, these verbal gymnastics allowed Ma to claim that he was simultaneously for (a) opening a new nuclear power plant and (b) making Taiwan nuclear free.  The DPP position was more straightforward.  They would not open 4NPP, and they would hasten the decommissioning of the old plants.  I think the KMT strategy largely worked.  Nuclear power did not seem to be a central issue in the 2012 campaign.

I have not seen specific polling data on support for nuclear power, but it is my impression that public opinion is shifting, perhaps decisively, away from the KMT.

 

Why is the KMT so politically committed to nuclear power?  Most importantly, they have committed enormous piles of money to this project over the past two decades.  They cannot simply walk away with nothing to show for it.  The DPP would beat over the head relentlessly for years and years.  How many schools, hospitals, roads, public housing, MRT lines, or flower festivals were sacrificed for 4NPP?  It would be strong evidence that the KMT had a flawed vision for the future and had stubbornly insisted on imposing that flawed vision on an unwilling population.  The KMT has been attacking the DPP for a decade over the 2001 showdown.  When the DPP stopped construction, they broke numerous contracts and had to pay heavy financial penalties.  Of course, the project was then resumed, so that money was just wasted.  However, if the plant never opens, this argument gets reversed: the DPP tried to save Taiwan an enormous amount of money, and the KMT wasted 10 more years of construction budgets.  For the KMT, reversing course is simply not an option.

There are also other reasons the KMT wants nuclear power.  One way to understand the KMT regime is as a construction state, much like the LDP’s Japan.  The ruling party hands out lots of construction contracts and turns these contracts into political support.  Some aspects are legal, some are hazy, and some are outright illegal.  However, it is pretty effective.  4NPP has been a 20 year gravy train of contracts to hand out.  (I hope I’m wrong about this.  Contracts used for this purpose often lead to shoddy public works.  This prospect terrifies me.)  Many manufacturers support nuclear power.  To be clear, they don’t care where the electricity comes from, but they can’t stomach the prospects of insufficient or unreliable power.  Many of the exporters that drive Taiwan’s economy want 4NPP opened because they believe it will provide steady and reliable electricity for the next few decades.  The KMT also listens closely to Taipower, the state run electricity company.  Taipower is deeply embedded in the KMT’s power structure.  The Economics Minister is a former Taipower executive, and the head of the Taipower workers’ union is a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.  Taipower wants 4NPP.  It can be pushed and prodded to reluctantly try out the odd alternative energy project, but 4NPP is Taipower’s crown jewel.

 

If the KMT is so deeply committed to nuclear power, how is it possible that they can accept a referendum?  Admittedly, I didn’t think it was possible until they announced it.  I fully expected that they would make a big show of safety tests, have a blue ribbon commission pronounce the plant safe, and use their majority in the legislature to push away any remaining obstacles.  Apparently public opinion is shifting enough that they don’t feel this strategy is tenable.  We have seen several prominent blue camp supporters ask the KMT to reconsider its stance.  The one that struck me was the foundation associated with Fubon Financial Group.  If even powerful people in Fubon, which is betting heavily on further integration into the Chinese market, are willing to speak out against nuclear power, anyone in the blue camp can.  The pressure from within the blue camp coalition must be intense.

One thought is that the KMT is using the referendum as a mechanism to back away from nuclear power.  If the public votes against 4NPP in the referendum, the KMT will have a rationale for changing its position.  The public will be responsible for the economic consequences of the decision, not the KMT.  I don’t think this is correct.  (Or if it is, it is a terrible strategy.)  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.  The KMT insisted on spending it.  Just as a government reaps political benefits for doing things that turn out well, they are penalized for making poor choices.  The KMT might hope it can foist off that responsibility onto the people, but one of the axioms of democratic politics is that the voters are never wrong.  Someone has to take the blame if 4NPP never opens, and that someone will be the KMT.

Moreover, if President Ma loses a referendum this summer, he might as well just tattoo “lame duck” across his forehead.  He will be politically neutered.

No, the KMT cannot lose this referendum.  They have to win it.  The only way this turns out well for them is if a clear majority of voters vote against not starting operations at 4NPP.  This means that the KMT will have to fully engage the debate.  President Ma will have to commit completely and publicly to this project; he won’t be able to prevaricate the way he did in the presidential campaign.  The KMT will have to convince the electorate that nuclear power is safe, efficient, clean, reliable, and desirable.

Don’t assume that Ma will fail.  His biggest advantage is that there is an information asymmetry.  The government will have all the details about 4NPP and Taiwan’s electricity needs.  When they need to know something, they can simply make a phone call.  Opponents will have to satisfy themselves with publicly available data, which is far less thorough.  Because of this, the KMT will usually have more convincing evidence for their arguments than the opposition will.  They also have all the resources of the state at their disposal to publicize their arguments.  In the ECFA debate, we saw lots of advertizing touting the advantages of ECFA.  Every government press release was infused with a pro-ECFA message.  Heck, even our electricity bills had a pro-ECFA message on them.  Get ready for an even more intense campaign.

The anti-nuclear camp also has to worry about this turning into a straight blue/green fight.  Dissatisfaction with the Ma administration is high, but there are a lot of people who will grit their teeth, curse bitterly, and vote for him rather than support the DPP.  The anti-nuclear camp needs to make sure that blue camp supporters who are against nuclear power feel that nuclear power is not just a proxy for feelings about China.  Given that the two big parties are clearly aligned against each other on this issue and will be leading their respective camps, that might be challenging.

 

This will be unlike any previous referendum.  We really haven’t had true referendum yet.  All prior cases were really just exercises in mobilizing voters in a general election campaign.  The questions were always designed to be as uncontroversial as possible.  “Do you favor a competent national defense?”  “Should we have high economic growth?” “Are you against pedophilia?”  (Ok, maybe those weren’t the exact questions…)  This question will be designed to resolve a public policy issue, not to mobilize voters for a different election.  While the government will phrase the question in as advantageous a way as possible, this question will inevitably split the electorate into two clear sides.

One thing opponents don’t need to worry about is turnout.  In the past, one side mobilized and the other side boycotted.  Since referenda need 50% turnout to become binding, all failed.  The question will be phrased in the negative, something like “Do you favor not beginning operations at 4NPP?” so technically the KMT could ensure the failure of the referendum by boycotting.

However, the KMT needs to win politically, not legally.  Consider if turnout is 40% and 90% of the votes are “yes” votes.  What that demonstrates is that there are a lot of voters who are against nuclear power.  It does not demonstrate that anyone actually supports it.  If the KMT felt passive support were enough, they would have been better off just pushing 4NPP through the normal legislative process rather than asking for a referendum.  The KMT needs active support.  It needs more “no” votes than “yes” votes.

The DPP will lead the charge against nuclear power, and the KMT will have to lead the demands for nuclear power.  With both sides fully mobilizing, turnout will not be so important.  I expect that 50% will not be a problem, but even if turnout is only 48%, if one side wins by a clear margin, that will be decisive in the political battle.  If the KMT wins, they will, of course, go forward.  If they lose by a clear amount, the party will not be able to stomach flagrantly defying public opinion.  (President Ma might, but the politicians who still have to fight future elections will not.)

I’m still stunned that the KMT has chosen this path.  However, they have cast their lot, and we are in for an interesting spring and summer.